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With Rice Withdrawing Name, Kerry Becomes Front-Runner for Secretary of State

Ambassador Susan E. Rice’s withdrawal from consideration to be President Barack Obama’s next secretary of State shifts the spotlight squarely onto Senate Foreign Relations Chairman John Kerry, D-Mass., the other name most frequently mentioned as a replacement for Secretary Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Rice, currently the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, withdrew her name Thursday in a letter to the president, citing the fierce Republican opposition in the Senate.

“The position of Secretary of State should never be politicized,” she wrote. “As someone who grew up in an era of comparative bipartisanship and as a sitting national security official who has served in two U.S. administrations, I am saddened that we have reached this point, even before you have decided whom to nominate.”

Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill had differing reactions to Rice’s decision, but seemed to be in unison on who the president should choose.

“John Kerry would have a lot of bipartisan support,” Senate Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill., said Thursday when asked whom Obama should nominate. “He’s done a great job in so many different ways for this country.” He added, “The president trusts him. I trust him. I think he’s done a great job.”

“We all know Senator Kerry very well,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said. “I think he’d be likely to be confirmed for whatever the president nominated him for.”

Asked if Kerry, the Democrats’ 2004 presidential nominee, was now Clinton’s heir apparent at Foggy Bottom, Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, responded, “It looks that way.”

And while he was fulsome in his praise of Kerry, Harkin also noted that there is another reason Republicans are fans of the idea — it would prompt a special election to fill Kerry’s Massachusetts Senate seat. That’s one reason it’s far from certain that the administration will turn to Kerry, whom Obama passed over four years ago. But with Rice falling off the list, it will only heat up the speculation surrounding Kerry, a Vietnam war veteran and an occasional envoy for the president in hotspots such as Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Kerry put out a statement late Thursday praising Rice, calling her “an extraordinarily capable and dedicated public servant.”

“As someone who has weathered my share of political attacks and understands on a personal level just how difficult politics can be, I’ve felt for her throughout these last difficult weeks,” he said, “but I also know that she will continue to serve with great passion and distinction.”

The opposition to the Rice nomination was spearheaded by Senate Armed Services ranking member John McCain of Arizona and his colleagues, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire.

The trio focused their critique on comments Rice made in a series of national television interviews in the wake of the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya. Rice appeared to play down the terrorist element of the attack in her comments based on talking points provided to officials by the intelligence community. They and other Republicans pointed to it as evidence that Rice is willing to put politics over national security realities.

There were also other doubts about her performance at the United Nations and on Africa policy during her tenure in the Clinton administration.

Rice’s critics were careful not to gloat after her letter became public.

“I respect Ambassador Rice’s decision,”Graham said in a written statement, adding that he still planned to get to the bottom of what happened before and after the Sept. 11 assault in Benghazi that killed four Americans, including U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens.

Ayotte’s statement echoed Graham’s nearly word for word.

“I respect Susan Rice’s decision and appreciate her commitment to public service. However, my concerns regarding the terrorist attack in Benghazi go beyond any one individual,” she said.

Other Republicans also praised the decision.

“I think it was the correct thing to do, because she’s a person who has access and can get access to classified materials and she should have had those before she came out and made those comments,” Sen. Orrin G. Hatch of Utah said. “You cannot have somebody as secretary of State who doesn’t understand that.”

Obama and other Democrats condemned the Republicans’ stonewalling of Rice as partisanship at its worst.

In a White House statement, the president called the attacks on Rice “unfair and misleading.”

“I am grateful that Susan will continue to serve as our ambassador at the United Nations and a key member of my cabinet and national security team,” he said in a written statement.

Durbin also said that Rice had been subject to “unwarranted criticism by Republicans.”

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