Defense Secretary Robert Gates has this Inauguration Day image in his head: sitting on the deck of his Washington State home overlooking Big Lake in Skagit County. And when he needs a little reminder amid waves of news reports that both presidential candidates want him to stay around in their administrations, he pulls out a "countdown clock" that ends in just under five months. "Part of what got him through this difficult tenure, presiding over two wars, losing hundreds of brave men and women on his watch," says spokesman Geoff Morrell, "has been this expectation that come Jan. 20, 2009, he gets to return to the place he loves the most in the world." The clock is actually a little business-card size thing on a key chain that a friend back in the Seattle area gave Gates. "He refers to it quite often," says Morrell, "and likes to break it out to remind himself that his days are numbered and he's heading home." Since joining the Bush administration nearly two years ago, Gates has traveled extensively, guided the department to success in the war on terror, and spoken bluntly about world affairs. As a result, there's talk about keeping him on by either Sens. John McCain or Barack Obama, possibly as secretary of state. Nobody's mentioned vice president yet, but it's probably coming. So, is Gates dead set about going home? "He learned long ago never to say never, but the circumstances under which he would continue to serve are inconceivable," says Morrell. Plus, he says of his boss, "he is a candid, to-the-point guy, and I think that is incompatible with politics these days."