Colin Powell and Hillary Clinton were major celebrities long before they became secretary of state, and Condoleezza Rice had ample gravitas before becoming America's top diplomat. But Clinton's successor, sources say, likely will lack their star power.
Washington is abuzz with scuttlebutt about who might occupy the big office in Foggy Bottom early next year. Even if President Obama defeats Mitt Romney—the apparent GOP nominee—this fall, sources say Clinton won't return as secretary.
Clinton has drawn rave reviews from Republicans and Democrats in Washington for her three-year stint. She has logged more miles than any previous secretary, and conducted a whirlwind tour around the globe.
"She is wiped out," one Washington insider says. "And who wouldn't be?"
Her last name, smarts and experience fed the break-neck schedule. The White House has viewed her as a major asset with ample ability to persuade and press Washington's friends, acquaintances and foes.
But the bench of global political superstars is not very deep, sources say. The most likely scenario might be a secretary early next year who is a veteran of foreign policy. Several sources say no matter which candidate wins in November, Clinton will be followed by a longtime American diplomacy grinder.
The favorites closely fit the bill of longtime policy wonks:
Susan Rice: The sitting U.S. ambassador to the United Nations has long been a trusted Obama aide. She was one of his chief foreign policy advisers during his 2008 presidential campaign. Also on her resume is the name of a past chief diplomat: Madeleine Albright, President Clinton's secretary of state. Albright was one of Rice's most influential mentors.
Rice has earned ample respect within Democratic circles for her work at the United Nations on a number of issues, including helping push through a resolution that led to the U.S.- and NATO-led military intervention in Libya. Perhaps more importantly, sources say, many congressional Republicans respect Rice for helping push through a U.N. resolution that slapped the toughest sanctions yet on Iran over the global chorus of objections to its nuclear arms ambitions.
"She was very close to Obama during the campaign," says Lawrence Korb of the Center for American Progress. "The White House has a lot of trust in her."
Steven Hadley: George W. Bush's national security adviser from 2005-2009, Hadley was instrumental in helping turn around the Iraq war. Washington national security insiders often muse that George W. Bush's second-term foreign policies were much less ambitious and globally antagonistic as his first four years in the Oval Office, and they give Hadley's influence ample credit. His career in high-level national security posts goes back to 1974.
"Romney very likely will want to pick a career guy, a trust hand, if you will," says Korb. "Hadley is that kind of guy, and he's generally well respected."
Additionally, two senators, one with more national and global recognition than the other, made several insiders dark horse list:
Sen. John Kerry: The Massachusetts Democrat has some star power leftover from his failed 2004 presidential run. As chairman of the Senate's Foreign Relations Committee, Kerry is a leading thinker on global issues, and has made official trips overseas. "Had Obama not decided to go with Hillary," says Korb, "I really think Kerry would have gotten it in 2008."
Since that time, Kerry has been "a loyal ally for the White House" on Capitol Hill, Korb says. Still, many in Washington snicker when discussing Kerry's interest in the top diplomat job: "Isn't Kerry always auditioning for secretary of state?" quipped one GOP source.