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GOP buzzing about Rice as candidate for California governor | (KRT) Condoleezza Rice is used to making tough policy decisions as President Bush's national security adviser. Soon she'll face a tough personal decision: whether to run for governor of California.

Republicans in the state have been buzzing about the possibility that Rice, the former Stanford University provost who makes Silicon Valley her permanent home, may seek the Republican gubernatorial nomination in 2006.

Rice, 48, has been coy about her intentions, but those who know her well say the state's top job is potentially appealing to her. She has not publicly expressed interest and has taken no visible steps to lay the groundwork for a campaign. But key Republicans said she has sparked optimism by not ruling it out, which she did when approached about a run for the U.S. Senate in 2004.

That's been enough to start many GOP insiders and political analysts salivating. More so than actor Arnold Schwarzenegger, Rice is viewed as the true dream candidate for the downtrodden California Republican Party.

She's a well-known and respected African-American woman, a self-professed moderate on several key social issues, including abortion and gay rights, while a loyal and trusted adviser to the popular Bush. A poll in April by Sacramento Republican consultant Ray McNally found Rice would crush Schwarzenegger in a GOP primary, 66 percent to 17 percent, and would defeat both of the leading potential Democratic candidates.

"If she wants to be governor, she could be governor," said McNally, who added the questions to an existing poll out of his own curiosity. But does Rice, who has never run for elective office, want to?

Running for governor "is not really on my radar screen," she said Thursday during a question-and-answer session after a speech to the public-policy group Town Hall Los Angeles. The questioner's plea - "Would you please run for California?" drew a round of applause from the 1,500 people gathered to hear Rice discuss the Middle East peace plan.

Rice smiled and noted, "I've got my hands full right now." But as she did when asked about a gubernatorial run on NBC's "Meet the Press" June 8, she declined to rule it out.

If history is a guide, Rice is likely to have left her high-pressure job as national security adviser by early 2005, and at the relatively young age of 50 would be looking for the next challenge in a life punctuated with extraordinary accomplishments.

Further fueling speculation is Rice's history of leaping at challenging opportunities for which she had laid little groundwork. She became the youngest provost in Stanford's history in 1993 with no previous administrative background, and joined Bush's presidential campaign as his top foreign-policy adviser in 1999 with no previous campaign experience.

"She has never said to me, `This is something I would like to consider. This is something I would like to happen.' ... But coming to her as an opportunity is very, very different than actively pursuing it herself," Coit Blacker, a Stanford professor who is one of Rice's closest friends, said of a gubernatorial run. "If the circumstances are right, my own guess is that this is a challenge she might be prepared to meet."

California's accelerating gubernatorial recall drive could dramatically alter the state's political landscape. Most observers believe that Rice - who earlier this month was appointed as Bush's point person in a drive for Middle East peace - would not leave the White House before the November 2004 presidential election.

But if the recall effort fails, or if another Democrat is elected to replace Gov. Gray Davis, Republican leaders are expected to try to draft Rice as the party's 2006 standard-bearer.

"California Republicans could spend the next two years in a laboratory trying to produce the perfect candidate, and we still wouldn't come up with someone half as good as Condoleezza Rice," said Republican consultant Dan Schnur, a former aide to Gov. Pete Wilson.

A move into politics would be unprecedented for a national security adviser. None of the 18 people who have served in the position since it was created 50 years ago have gone on to a political career, with most choosing to go into academia or business.

But Rice, an accomplished pianist and avid football fan who says her dream job is commissioner of the National Football League, is not a typical national security adviser. As a skilled communicator and the first African-American woman to hold the job, she has become a celebrity.

Rice has posed for Vogue magazine, has played a classical duet with world-renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma and will be the subject of an upcoming episode of the A&E television network's "Biography." She was mentioned prominently as a potential replacement for Vice President Dick Cheney as Bush's 2004 running mate before the White House announced Cheney would remain on the ticket.

Rice has been highly visible, appearing on major television talk shows 55 times since assuming the job, more than any other previous national security adviser, according to I.M. Destler, a University of Maryland professor researching a book about the National Security Council.

Rice also is not a complete stranger to politics. Former California Gov. Pete Wilson considered naming her to his vacated Senate seat in 1991. And in highly unusual moves for a foreign-policy adviser, she gave a prime-time speech at the 2000 Republican National Convention and campaigned for Bush in an attempt to woo women voters. But beyond national security issues, Rice's views on other hot-button topics are little known.

"She's really a great mystery at this point," said Bill Whalen, a research fellow at the Hoover Institution and a former aide to Wilson.

In a lengthy interview with the Mercury News during the 2000 campaign, Rice said she initially was a Democrat, casting her first presidential vote for Jimmy Carter in 1976. But Rice, a political scientist who specializes in Russian studies, said she became disenchanted with Carter for not being tougher with the former Soviet Union.

She voted for Ronald Reagan in 1980, even though she said he "made me a little bit nervous on some things. I thought he had a bit of an edge on social issues and that worried me. But I wanted Jimmy Carter out of office so bad, I really did."

Rice, an evangelical Christian, eventually became a Republican largely because of the party's stance on national security. In the 2000 interview, she described herself as a "social moderate."

"I'm a mildly pro-choice moderate woman. Maybe not even mildly," Rice said, adding that she was "prepared to accept some limits" on abortion, such as parental notification. She said she supported gay rights, but added "I don't favor, myself, gay marriage per se."

In January, after Bush announced he would urge the U.S. Supreme Court to strike down the University of Michigan's affirmative-action program, Rice took the rare step of publicly clarifying her views after news reports said she had played a key role in the decision. Rice said she believed that race could be a factor in university admissions, publicly endorsing a key principle that Bush did not embrace.

Political analysts say Rice has the potential to appeal to voters across the political spectrum.

As a minority woman who defines herself as a social moderate, she could lure Democratic and independent voters. And her role as one of Bush's closest advisers has endeared her to GOP conservatives who normally would be leery of her moderate stances on social issues.

"I consider the pro-life issue to be an extremely important issue, but we're $38 billion in debt," said Wayne Johnson, a Sacramento Republican media consultant who works with conservative candidates. "Every indication is that Condoleezza Rice would be an exceptional candidate for a difficult job."

But exactly what kind of gubernatorial candidate Rice would make is hard to gauge. Former Los Angeles Mayor Dick Riordan - another widely known, moderate Republican - also looked great on paper but failed miserably in last year's gubernatorial primary.

Come the time a candidate for governor in 2006 will have to enter the race, Rice likely will be looking for a new job - either because Bush is not re-elected or simply because of the accumulated pressures of four years as national security adviser. The average tenure in the job has been 31 months, and not since Henry Kissinger stepped down in 1975 has anyone served more than 50 months. Rice has served since January 2001.

"It's unimaginable to me that Condi, at the end of her term as national security adviser, will spend her time on the "Newshour' as a former national security adviser," said Michael McFaul, a Stanford University professor and colleague of Rice's since 1985. "She's not done, and this is not the pinnacle. She's too young and too ambitious."

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© 2003, Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services