Ex-Utah guv on GOP's short list

Leavitt sources say that he hasn't closed the door on chairman spot
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WASHINGTON - There's a chance a Utahn could play a key role in the debate over how the national Republican Party regroups and fights its way back from the political wilderness in the next two years.

Former Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt may be on a short list of potential candidates for GOP chairman.

Leavitt, now the secretary of Health and Human Services, hasn't announced any formal intentions to seek the top spot at the Republican National Committee, but there are rumblings that he may be seeking the spot.

The Utahn's name showed up last week among a short list of possible contenders published by The Hill, a Washington, D.C., newspaper that covers Capitol Hill. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney's name also was mentioned, although Romney has made it clear he's not interested.

Sources close to Leavitt say there's no active campaign for the job, but the door isn't closed either.

"A number of party activists and some elected officials have asked if he would consider it," one source close to Leavitt told The Tribune on condition of anonymity. "He is working through a list of things he wants to finish before leaving HHS and hasn't had a chance to evaluate it yet."

Candidates are lining up for the top job, seeing the opportunity to rebuild the party after a thumping in the general election that brought the Democrats the White House and bigger majorities in both chambers in Congress.

Former Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael Steele, a prominent black member of the party, announced his candidacy Thursday, and Michigan Republican Party Chairman Saul Anuzis says he's in the race as well. Other potential contenders include: Michigan GOP activist Chuch Yob, ex-Iowa Rep. Jim Nussle and Chip Saltsman, the former campaign manager for Mike Huckabee's failed presidential campaign.

Current RNC Chairman Michael Duncan is also seeking to retain his job.

Though he is not as well-known in national GOP circles as some, Leavitt brings a long resume to the potential job.

He currently heads the largest federal department outside the Pentagon, previously served as head of the Environmental Protection Agency and was elected to three terms as Utah governor.

During that time, peers elected him as head of the National Governors Association after he had served stints as chairman of the Republican Governors Association and the Western Governors Association.

Prior to his election as governor, Leavitt was the top executive of a family owned insurance business. But he also had considerable experience as a political strategist and was senior partner in Utah's first professional campaign consulting firm. He worked on state and federal races, including President's Reagan's 1984 re-election.

"Mike Leavitt has a way of seeing around corners when it comes to politics," said Dave Hansen, a Utah GOP operative who served three field coordinator stints at the RNC headquarters. "He could do the job very, very well."

Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics, said the Republicans may look to a past chairman, now-Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, as a model for leadership. Barbour headed the party through the 1994 Republican comeback.

Current and former governors may have a leg up this time around. "If they're looking for successes, they're looking for them in statehouses," Sabato said.

Sabato said Leavitt is a well-recognized party member, had a good reputation as governor and isn't seen as a firebrand that could further split the party.

The Republican National Committee, made up of two people from every state, will pick a chairman in January.


Mike Leavitt

* Age: 57

* Former chief executive of insurance company

* Political strategist for state and federal campaigns

* Elected to three terms as Utah governor

* Served as head of national governors and Republican governors groups

* Headed Environmental Protection Agency

* Current Secretary of Health and Human Services