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Sunday, October 21, 2012

A Debate Partner Who Could Become Secretary of State

To prepare for his debates, the president tapped a Senate veteran who knew the other party's nominee well and could play the part with precision. By the end of their sessions, the president was seriously thinking about his debate practice partner for secretary of state.

Sound familiar? The year was 1996 and the president was Bill Clinton. As he headed into the final stages of his re-election effort, he recruited George J. Mitchell, a former Senate majority leader, to play the part of the Republican nominee, Bob Dole, another former Senate majority leader. To Mr. Clinton, Mr. Mitchell was so impressive he seemed a natural fit as the nation's next top diplomat.

The story has faint echoes this weekend as President Obama and Senator John Kerry square off in debate practices at Camp David before the president's final showdown with Mitt Romney on Monday. Just as Mr. Mitchell knew Mr. Dole better than almost any other Democrat, Mr. Kerry has a good sense of Mr. Romney , his fellow would-be president from Massachusetts. And just as Mr. Mitchell was on the radar screen for Foggy Bottom in a second term back then, so too is Mr. Kerry this year.

But the story may be a cautionary tale for Mr. Kerry. Mr. Clinton considered Mr. Mitchell perhaps his best friend in the Senate. But when John F. Harris reported in The Washington Post that Madeleine K. Albright, then the ambassador to the United Nations, was considered a “second tier” candidate for secretary of state, women's groups erupted with anger and pushed strenuously for her to be appointed as the first woman to hold the post.

Mr. Clinton realized he would have to pass over his debate partner and bow to the inevitable once the first lady intervened. “Hillary Clinton herself now weighed in decisively, making it clear that the president would be facing anger at the office and at home if the choice was anyone else,” Mr. Harris wrote later in “The Survivor,” his history of the Clinton presidency.

Mrs. Clinton, of course, is now the secretary of state. Mr. Kerry's main rival to succeed her is Susan E. Rice, like Ms. Albright the ambassador to the United Nations. Whether Mrs. Clinton is weighing in again is unknown. As it happens, no white male has served as secretary of state since Ms. Albright's appointment, so there are fewer barriers to break. Ms. Rice would not be the first woman or the first African-American to hold the job, or for that matter, even the first African-American woman named Rice to hold the job.

Also unlike in 1996, Ms. Rice is the one who started out as the front-runner, according to White House officials â€" although it would probably be going too far to describe Mr. Kerry as “second tier.”

Follow Peter Baker on Twitter at @peterbakernyt.