WASHINGTON – Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice (search) has been spending time in places like Israel and Italy instead of Iowa. Some Republicans hope she will turn from globe-trotting diplomat to barnstorming candidate for president.
The 2008 presidential race (search) is still a long way off, and Rice, a Republican, is only seven months into her job at the State Department. Still, there are signs that she could take a shot at two historic precedents — the first woman president and the first black.
"She is a fascinating candidate," said Iowa State political science professor Steffen Schmidt, jumping the gun a bit. "She's a woman, she's conservative, she's got a foreign policy background and she's extremely smart."
Rice has hired numerous inside-Washington political operatives as some of her closest advisers, including many who worked with her in the White House and one who worked for President Bush's political guru, Karl Rove (search). Rice, a former professor, has a couple of fellow academics in her inner circle as well, but they are outnumbered.
She looked more like an aspiring mayor or governor waving to the crowd in New York City last month as she plugged that city's long-shot bid to host the 2012 Olympics (search). London won the competition.
Rice's extensive foreign travel and frequent interviews have raised her profile from her old job as Bush's national security adviser, and her designer wardrobe and changing hairstyles make her easily the most glamorous member of the administration.
Rice is famously close to Bush, who cannot run again and has not anointed anyone to run as the GOP candidate to succeed him. Bush's brother, Jeb (search), has repeatedly said he won't run in 2008, although their 81-year-old father, former President George H.W. Bush, has said he would like to see the Florida governor seek the White House.
Rice says little in public about her political plans, but she has acknowledged that she would love to be the commissioner of the National Football League (search) one day. Interviewers keep asking Rice about a White House bid, however, and her recent answers are open to interpretation.
A few months ago she could not have been clearer when she told NBC's Meet the Press, "No, I will not run for president of the United States." Last month she told the same network this: "I don't want to run for anything. I really don't."
In the no-sometimes-means-yes world of presidential politics, that kind of wording gives Rice some wiggle room. It has also encouraged a growing online cheering section.
There are several Web sites devoted to a possible presidential run.
On Rice2008.com a $20 donation gets you a choice of bumper stickers, including this one: "Hillary '08? Not if Condi's running." At americansforrice.com, a site promoting a "draft Condi" movement, you can join an online discussion group called Team Condi.
"Condi has it all. An impeccable and impressive resume, brains, looks, artistic talent and accomplishment," gushed a fan named Paul, writing last month on another Web log.
"She cannot help but add to the ranks of black and female Republican voters, and would likely be a highly effective and popular president," he wrote.
Unauthorized Condi hats, T-shirts, even bobblehead dolls abound on the Internet, and there is a lively discussion of a forthcoming book by Dick Morris, former political adviser to President Clinton, titled "Condi v. Hillary: The Next Great Presidential Race."
The high-profile job and subsequent chatter about being the administration's superstar give her name recognition that other possible GOP candidates — a few governors, several senators — crave.
All that enthusiasm does not a political base make, or even a fundraising machine. Other potential candidates are already making the rounds in Iowa and New Hampshire, sites of the opening presidential selection contests, and lining up supporters and seasoned staff.
Rice has never been a candidate for elective office. Her views on matters beyond foreign policy aren't well known, although she has memorably labeled her position on abortion as "mildly pro-choice."
She was a chief architect of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, and her political fortunes could be hinged to public support for the war and rebuilding efforts that are likely to continue in tandem during the run-up to the 2008 presidential election.
While there are examples from early in the nation's history of secretaries of state becoming president — six from 1801 to 1857 — there are none in the modern era.
Retired Gen. Wesley Clark (search), a failed Democratic presidential candidate, found out the hard way last year that success in some foreign policy jobs does not automatically translate to the political realm.
Rice's chief obstacle, however, may be that she cannot really run for president while she is doing the very job that has made her most noticeable as a potential candidate, political analysts said.
"She's still a long shot," said Jack Pitney, government professor at Claremont McKenna College in Rice's adopted home state of California. "We can all take this buzz a lot more seriously when she starts saying nice things about ethanol" — the heavily subsidized corn additive dear to the voters of Iowa.