WASHINGTON — Senator John Kerry headed to Camp David on Friday to spend the weekend with President Obama. Senator Rob Portman has been on and off Mitt Romney’s plane for weeks and will spend the next few days with him in Florida.
Each senator is playing the other party’s nominee in rehearsals for Monday’s final debate, as Mr. Obama seeks to keep his job and Mr. Romney tries to take it away. Left unspoken is that both Mr. Kerry and Mr. Portman may also be unofficially auditioning for jobs of their own.
Mr. Kerry, a Democrat from Massachusetts and chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, is one of two leading candidates for secretary of state if Mr. Obama wins, according to White House officials. Mr. Portman, a budget director under President George W. Bush who now represents Ohio, is seen by Republicans as a potential treasury secretary in a Romney administration.
Never mind that the race for president is hardly over. The race for choice positions in the still-theoretical next administration is on. With two and a half weeks until the election, the subtle and not-so-subtle positioning has intensified into a multifront struggle for the fruits of a victory not yet won, according to three dozen Democratic and Republican insiders who described the situation on the condition that they not be named.
In keeping with Washington etiquette, the contenders publicly deny any ambition for appointments and insist their only focus is on winning the election. But they are meeting friends in the White House for coffee, volunteering for campaign work, raising their profile through speeches and television appearances, and dropping hints about availability come November.
“People are jockeying like mad but they have to be careful because to some degree this administration has frowned on explicit, overt jockeying,” said a former Obama administration official. Similarly, word has gone out to donors from Mr. Romney’s Boston headquarters not to ask for jobs until after the election.
Most intense has been the struggle to succeed Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who is stepping down. On the Democratic side, Susan E. Rice, the ambassador to the United Nations, was the clear front-runner for months. After the deadly attack on a Libya diplomatic post, the White House sent her to the Sunday television programs, raising her prominence for a possible promotion. But the move backfired when she described the assault as an outgrowth of protests only days before the government shifted its explanation and called it a terrorist attack.
Mr. Kerry signed letters to the administration requesting information about the attack but issued a statement defending Ms. Rice. It is a mark of Washington cynicism that even a statement defending her was seen by some as an effort by Mr. Kerry to undercut her by keeping attention on the matter. The Obama team has rallied behind Ms. Rice, saying she reflected information from intelligence agencies, but it recognizes that she now could face a confirmation fight from Senate Republicans.
Mr. Kerry bolstered his standing with a fiery convention speech for Mr. Obama and has had more face time with the president during debate preparations in recent weeks than Ms. Rice probably has in a year. While some Democrats blamed him for Mr. Obama’s poor performance at the first debate, the president told advisers it was not Mr. Kerry’s fault. But if the Senate is closely divided after the election, the White House may be reluctant to risk his seat, particularly if Senator Scott P. Brown, a Republican, is defeated, because Mr. Brown could then jump into a special election for Mr. Kerry’s seat.
Thomas E. Donilon, the national security adviser, would like to be secretary of state, friends say, but would face confirmation questions about security leaks and his past work for Fannie Mae, the mortgage company at the heart of the housing meltdown, and he has told Mr. Obama he wants to stay in his current post. A dark horse discussed in the White House is Deputy Secretary of State William J. Burns, a career diplomat.
Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner also plans to leave after the election. Jacob S. Lew, the White House chief of staff, is deemed the odds-on favorite to take over. Others mentioned include Erskine Bowles, co-chairman of Mr. Obama’s deficit reduction commission; Roger Altman, a former deputy treasury secretary; Laurence D. Fink, chairman of BlackRock, the giant money management firm; and Richard C. Levin, the president of Yale.
If Mr. Lew goes, Mr. Obama would need a fourth chief of staff. David Plouffe, his senior adviser, would be a logical choice, but he wants to leave after the election. Valerie Jarrett, a close friend of the first family, might want the role, but she has detractors. Mr. Donilon turned down the job once before but could be pressed again.
Also mentioned are Michael Froman, the president’s international economics adviser; Robert Bauer, the former White House counsel; Ronald A. Klain, the former vice-presidential chief of staff now helping with debate preparations; and Deputy Secretary of State Thomas R. Nides.
Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta and Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. are expected to leave, although they may wait until after the inauguration, perhaps even six months or a year into the new term.
Mr. Panetta, who flies home to California every weekend, is eager to retire but may see through a looming struggle over military spending first. Waiting in the wings are Michèle A. Flournoy, a former undersecretary of defense who would be the first woman to run the armed forces, and Ashton Carter, the current deputy secretary. Democrats said Mr. Donilon or Mr. Kerry might be considered.
Mr. Holder had been thought ready to go but may hang on to avoid looking like he was driven out by controversy over a botched anti-gun operation. The main internal candidate to succeed him is Janet Napolitano, the homeland security secretary, whose supporters have spread word of her interest.
The Romney side is more in flux. A transition team called the Readiness Project led by former Gov. Mike Leavitt of Utah has assembled lists of candidates but no one has been interviewed, aides said. That has not stopped the lobbying, though. Transition team members are inundated with calls and e-mails.
Mr. Romney would draw from his campaign circle for White House staff. Mr. Leavitt seems a likely chief of staff, although Senator Portman is also mentioned. Richard Williamson, a foreign policy adviser, may become national security adviser, while another aide, Dan Senor, seems likely to get a top position, perhaps working for a Vice President Paul D. Ryan. Bob White, a longtime Romney friend and campaign chairman, could be senior adviser. Either Eric Fehrnstrom or Kevin Madden could be press secretary.
The competition for secretary of state has exposed an ideological rift. When Robert Zoellick, the former World Bank president, was tapped to run the national security transition team, it ignited protests from conservatives who viewed him as too moderate. They prefer John R. Bolton, the outspoken former ambassador to the United Nations, although he could not win confirmation even for that post during the Bush administration and had to be installed by recess appointment.
Other options include Mr. Portman; Robert M. Kimmitt, a former undersecretary of state and deputy treasury secretary; or even Senator Joseph I. Lieberman, the hawkish independent from Connecticut who caucuses with Democrats. Former Gov. Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota had been held up for a top job but effectively bowed out to take a private-sector position starting Nov. 1.
To run the Treasury Department, Mr. Romney could tap, instead of Mr. Portman, Mr. Zoellick, Mr. Kimmitt or R. Glenn Hubbard, the Columbia Business School dean. Former Senator James M. Talent of Missouri is seen as a possible defense secretary. Gov. Bob McDonnell of Virginia could be attorney general, as could Senator Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire. Senator Orrin G. Hatch and former Senator Robert F. Bennett, both of Utah, and Senator Marco Rubio of Florida all are in the mix.