WASHINGTON — With the presidential contest entering its final days, Mitt Romney and his top advisers are preparing to make personnel announcements as early as next week — immediately after the election — should the Republican nominee win the White House, say aides who have been working on his campaign and his transition plans.
For months, much of the political jockeying in Washington has revolved around President Barack Obama, as polls appeared to show him heading toward a second term.
Several high-ranking Obama officials, including Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, made clear their intention to leave even if the president wins. But as the race has narrowed to a dead heat, top Republican officials have stepped up their angling for slots in a Romney administration.
And Romney advisers tasked with leading the “Readiness Project,” an internal operation to ensure a smooth transition of power during the 77 days between the election and the inauguration, have assembled short lists of candidates for the highest-level Cabinet and White House staff positions.
Asked to describe the kind of team Romney would build, one Republican close to the planning said it would be “the third Reagan term that we never got.”
Other supporters said they are looking for clues as to whether Romney would cater to the ideological right or more to the center, with evidence pointing to both.
Although the Romney campaign says the candidate has made no personnel decisions and the formal vetting would not begin until after the election, a picture of a possible Romney administration has begun to emerge — especially on the economic and foreign policy fronts.
Leavitt a key player
Mike Leavitt, a former Utah governor and secretary of Health and Human Services, is heading Romney’s transition team, based in Washington, funded with government money and largely independent from the Boston-based campaign.
Leavitt is being discussed as a likely chief of staff in a Romney administration, which would signal that Romney wants a pragmatic leader, versed in the ways of Washington, at the helm rather than an ideological firebrand or an outsider.
Leavitt wields unquestioned authority, with lists of candidates for appointments going through him before reaching Romney, aides said.
Romney aides said they are searching for potential appointees not only among those who have served in government but also across corporate America and other sectors removed from politics.
The backgrounds of leading candidates are under intense internal review, and dossiers are being prepared for Romney’s perusal, said advisers and Romney associates, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
“There’s a lot of people that we’re looking at who are just great Americans who haven’t been involved with the campaign,” said a Romney adviser.
Other top roles
Conflicting pressures on Romney are playing out in his rumored finalists for secretary of state.
Robert B. Zoellick, a George W. Bush administration official who recently stepped down as head of the World Bank, is being mentioned as a possible head of the State Department or the Treasury Department.
But conservative Romney allies consider Zoellick too moderate and conciliatory and not as powerful an advocate for American strength abroad as other contenders for national security positions, including John Bolton, a Romney campaign surrogate who served as Bush’s ambassador to the United Nations.
Richard S. Williamson, a top foreign policy official in the Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations and a senior policy adviser to Romney, is in the mix for a number of foreign policy posts, including national security adviser.
Ohio Sen. Rob Portman, Romney’s sparring partner in practice debates, is likely to be a top candidate to head the Treasury Department, advisers have said.
Portman served as director of the Office of Management and Budget in the George W. Bush administration.
Another contender is R. Glenn Hubbard, the dean of Columbia Business School, who chaired Bush’s Council of Economic Advisers and has helped Romney develop his economic agenda.
Former Missouri Sen. James Talent, who traveled with Romney this summer to meet with British officials, is considered the most likely pick for defense secretary.
And Dan Senor, chief spokesman in the Bush administration for the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq, would almost certainly serve in a national security position, perhaps in the White House.
Senor, a senior foreign policy adviser to Romney, was at Romney’s side during his July visit to Israel and helped him prepare for the October debates.
Two other foreign policy advisers to Romney — Mitchell Reiss, the policy-planning chief under Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, and Elliott Abrams, who was a member of Bush’s National Security Council — are seen by Republicans as likely to join the administration, as is Alex Wong, the campaign’s foreign policy director who staffed Romney on his trip overseas.
Another name that has surfaced for a foreign affairs position is Richard Haass, a policy-planning chief under Powell, although — like Zoellick — Haass is not trusted by the more hawkish Republicans.
Lanhee Chen, the policy director, could assume a senior position overseeing domestic policy in the White House, say Republicans close to the campaign.
On the political side, senior advisers Eric Fehrnstrom and Kevin Madden are considered likely contenders for press secretary.
This power reset is a Washington tradition every four years, fraught with gossip and internal jockeying.
This time, it comes as the next administration will face negotiating with Congress over urgent tasks, foremost among them solving the debt crisis that threatens to plunge the nation over the “fiscal cliff” that economists say could forestall the economic recovery.
Inside the Obama administration, lobbying efforts are under way for some of the highest-profile cabinet posts.
Clinton has long been expected to step down if Obama wins another term, and she said recently that she would remain only until a successor were in place.
U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice had been considered the leading candidate to replace her, but Rice’s involvement in the White House’s rocky public response to the terrorist attacks on U.S. personnel in Libya has compromised her standing.
Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, who helped Obama prepare for the debates with Romney, is another top contender to head the State Department, as is national security adviser Thomas Donilon.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta is expected to retire, officials said, although he might stick around for a few more months until the battle over the fiscal cliff is resolved.
The Pentagon faces $55 billion in across-the-board cuts early next year unless Congress and the White House find a way to offset them.
One Democratic contender to replace Panetta is Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter, a Rhodes Scholar with a doctorate in theoretical physics from Oxford and bachelor’s degrees in physics and medieval history from Yale.
He was a longtime Harvard faculty member and served in the Clinton administration as assistant secretary of defense for international security policy.
Michele Flournoy, who served for three years as undersecretary of defense for policy, resigned unexpectedly in February to spend more time with her three school-age children, but she has resurfaced during the presidential campaign as a spokeswoman for Obama on national security.
White House Chief of Staff Jacob Lew, a former director of the Office of Management and Budget, is being discussed as a leading contender to replace Geithner in a second Obama term — which would create a vacancy running the White House itself, a job that Donilon could be tapped for if he did not move to State.
Erskine Bowles, former chief of staff to President Bill Clinton, was mentioned as a possible Treasury secretary, having achieved a level of bipartisan support rare in Washington as co-chairman of the Simpson-Bowles Commission, which recommended ways to curb the federal debt.
But he has indicated he is not interested in serving in the Cabinet.
In the past year, there has been increasing speculation that Eric Holder Jr. would step down as attorney general in the wake of negative publicity about Fast and Furious, the botched federal gun operation under the leadership of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
Sources close to Holder said Obama has indicated he would like the attorney general to stay, but if he does not, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano has signaled that she would be interested in the job.
Also mentioned as possible contenders are Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick and Preet Bhara, the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York.