By Julian Pecquet - 09/04/12 10:42 PM EDT
CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) will be defending President Obama’s record on national security when he speaks to convention delegates on Thursday evening, but political observers will be watching the high-profile speech for hints about the senator’s future.
Kerry’s prime-time spot — he speaks shortly before Obama accepts the Democratic presidential nomination — comes as rumors abound that he is in the running for Hillary Clinton’s job as secretary of state. Clinton has said she won’t stay on if Obama wins reelection, and Kerry is said to have long coveted the position.
“I think giving him a slot says a lot,” a Democratic strategist close to Kerry told The Hill of the convention speech. “It sends a clear signal that he’s an important player.”
Thursday’s speech could backfire on Kerry if he fails to deliver, however. Obama has an “amazing advantage” on national security over Mitt Romney, Rep. Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.) said Tuesday morning at an event sponsored by The Hill, but Democrats have “a lot more work to do to” to help Southern voters in particular “understand his role as commander in chief.”
“Just speaking from a Southern perspective, [Kerry] is not the most effective advocate,” Cooper said after the event. Kerry lost North Carolina — a state that’s a toss-up this year, along with Florida and Virginia — by double digits when he was the Democratic nominee in 2004, despite having home-state Sen. John Edwards on the ticket.
“Massachusetts is great and wonderful,” Cooper said, “but if you want to do the South, you’ve got to have somebody who speaks with a Southern accent.”
The speaking gig comes after months of re-engagement between Kerry’s team and the Obama administration after Clinton beat him out for the State Department job, the strategist said. The source said Kerry “worked it” pretty hard to get the position, endorsing Obama over Clinton in the Democratic primary as early as January 2008.
Kerry and his staff vehemently deny that the senator is gunning for Clinton’s job. They say the Washington parlor game is a distraction that has made it harder for Kerry’s panel to do its job by giving Republicans an opening to question his motives.
The committee’s staff director, Bill Danvers, says he’s traveled all over the world with the senator over the past year, and he’s never seen Kerry show an interest in the secretary of state slot.
“When we’re talking about what the committee agenda will be and what we’ll consider in terms of legislation, or hearings, or treaties, the issue of secretary of state just isn’t part of the conversation,” Danvers told The Hill. “That’s just not the way we do business.”
Still, Kerry’s name keeps popping up, bolstered by his global stature as the 2004 Democratic presidential candidate and congressional leader. He’s also conducted some high-profile foreign trips on behalf of the administration, including a February 2011 trip to Pakistan to negotiate the release of an American diplomat.
“He has really gone out of his way already this year to be a spokesman for the administration on national security,” said Heather Hurlburt, a former speechwriter for President Bill Clinton and two Democratic secretaries of state. “He’s a good soldier and he’s a known quantity.”
The two other candidates most often mentioned are Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, and National Security Adviser Tom Donilon, both of whom served with Obama’s 2008 campaign.
Their closeness to the president could give them a leg up in a second Obama administration, and they’ve both had their share of success: Rice was a key advocate of forceful intervention in Libya, while Donilon is credited with running an efficient agency and overseeing the raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound.
Rice, however, is now stuck with a situation in Syria that seems hopelessly deadlocked at the U.N. And Senate Republicans singled out Donilon as the potential source of national security leaks in a June letter to Attorney General Eric Holder calling for an independent investigator.
All three candidates are maneuvering behind the scenes for the job, said Hurlburt, while trying to avoid any unseemly public campaigning. She described a three-layer strategy — building a public profile as an effective leader, drawing closer to the president and courting allies — even as “everybody is perfectly aware that that’s what you’re doing and is watching you do it.”
She said Kerry has an advantage in that sitting senators are usually relatively easy to confirm. And if Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.) wins reelection, she added, Kerry’s seat is likely to remain in Democratic hands.
“A different way of thinking about that,” she said, “is, if you can’t get Kerry confirmed, who the heck could you get confirmed?”