Gen. Dempsey emerges as favorite to be next chairman of Joint Chiefs

Gen. Martin Dempsey, the recently installed Army chief of staff, is now the front-runner to replace Adm. Michael Mullen as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, defense sources say.

White House officials have been studying a handful of top generals and admirals to replace Mullen, whose second and final term as the U.S. military’s top officer ends this fall. As White House officials have chilled on former top candidates, multiple sources familiar with internal Obama administration deliberations say officials are leaning toward tapping Dempsey as the next chairman.

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“Dempsey would do a ‘touch-and-go’ as [Army chief] and move up to be CJCS,” said one Pentagon adviser, who requested anonymity. The source was using Pentagon shorthand for both a pilot practicing landings and for the chairman’s post.

An announcement could come sometime this summer or early fall, sources say.

Dempsey has surged to the front of the pack as other candidates have slipped backward.

The current vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Gen. James “Hoss” Cartwright, was long considered to be in line to take over for Mullen.

Journalist and author Bob Woodward dubbed Cartwright Obama’s favorite general in his book Obama’s Wars.

But the White House now views him as tainted, multiple defense sources said late Thursday and Friday.

Cartwright, a former fighter pilot, was cleared earlier this year by the Pentagon’s inspector general after allegations he had a sexual relationship with a female aide. Still, DoD investigators raised questions about Cartwright’s judgment and approach in dealing with the aide, who reportedly was allowed to sleep in his hotel room while intoxicated on an official trip while Cartwright worked.

Navy Secretary Ray Mabus has said he disagrees with that aspect of the IG’s report, but it is increasingly clear that Mabus's defense will not be enough to put the man known as “Hoss” in the chairman’s office.

Two sources also said White House officials are looking beyond Cartwright after deeming other “personal” issues “problematic.”

Adm. James Stavridis, the current U.S. European Command chief and NATO Supreme Allied commander, also was long considered a top candidate. But his stock has fallen in recent weeks, sources say.

“The possibility that Gen. Dempsey might get the nod for the top military job only began circulating two weeks ago, when rumors started to spread that Adm. Stavridis had not fared well in his White House interview for the chairman's position,” said Loren Thompson of the Lexington Institute.

The Pentagon adviser said another “minor issue” has hurt Stavridis’s chances for chairman.

But Stavridis — who has been called "brilliant" by the Pentagon officials and defense insiders who know him — might need to wait a bit longer to become chairman.

Two defense sources told The Hill the administration has put Stavridis on the short list to replace Adm. Gary Roughead as the next chief of naval operations (CNO). That would keep him in uniform, as well as make him a top contender to follow the next Joint Chiefs chairman.

“If Stavridis does not become CNO, the Navy will likely lose him — which would be a huge loss to that service,” a Pentagon adviser said.

Thompson wrote on Lexington’s blog Friday that Vice Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jonathan Greenert is also on the CNO short list.

“Greenert has long been viewed as the likely successor to current CNO Gary Roughead,” Thompson wrote.

Speculation has been whirling about for nearly a year in Washington’s defense circles about the post-Mullen era. The buzz intensified Thursday after the defense sector blog Information Dissemination posted an entry stating the Pentagon had sent its “final list” of candidates for top jobs to the White House.

The Information Dissemination blog, run by industry consultant Raymond Pritchett, reported that the final list recommended Dempsey for chairman, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz for vice chairman, Greenert for CNO and Gen. Raymond Odierno, the current U.S. Joint Forces Command chief, as the next Army chief.

Pritchett also has written for the U.S. Naval Institute and the Atlantic Council.

A Pentagon spokesman did not respond to an inquiry about whether that much-anticipated recommendations list had indeed been sent across the Potomac River.

Defense insiders noted the race for these coveted senior military jobs can resemble a boxing card: subject to change.

If the White House does nominate Dempsey and he is confirmed by the Senate, it would mark the first time in nearly a decade that an Army general has held the coveted chairman’s post. Mullen's term expires this summer.

Army Gen. Hugh Shelton was Joint Chiefs chairman from October 1997 through September 2001.

Senior Army officials and ground service proponents have long wanted to take back the post, according to defense sources. Since the position was created in 1942, eight of the 17 chairmen have been Army generals.

The ground service led the way in both the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, which did not play out as intended. Defense insiders have said there was a feeling among Bush and Obama administration officials that past Army generals were tainted by their experiences leading those fights.

But time has passed. Dempsey is considered among the group of Army generals who helped set a new course in Iraq, making him an attractive candidate for the chairman post.

Dempsey was deputy commander of U.S. Central Command from August 2007 to March 2008, and was Multi-National Security Transition Command - Iraq commander from August 2005 to August 2007. He became Army chief on April 11.

Dempsey worked closely in Iraq with Gen. David Petraeus, who has been tapped as the next Central Intelligence Agency director.

Moving Dempsey from a short stint as Army chief also clears up another conundrum for the White House: What to do with highly regarded Odierno, who made a name for himself as the top U.S. commander in Iraq from September 2008 until September 2010.

Odierno was sent to Norfolk, Va., last fall as the new U.S. Joint Forces Command chief. His main task there? To close down the organization and help move its essential parts to other military entities.

Shifting Dempsey into the top officer’s job would allow the administration to make Odierno the next Army chief of staff, multiple defense sources said.

An Army chairman would mean the vice chairman would have to come from one of the other services, and multiple defense sources echoed the blog’s report that Schwartz is the leading contender to take over that post.