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Mitchell Leads Candidates To Head State Department

By Peter Baker and Al Kamen
The Washington Post

If things had worked out the way he had planned, President Clinton would be leaving Tuesday morning for Hawaii. But the luaus have been put on hold while he tries to put together a foreign policy team for his second term.

After several rounds of weekend meetings, Clinton spent much of Monday on the telephone in hopes of settling on a new secretary of state, and possibly a defense secretary, before Friday, when he now hopes to depart for his island vacation. Former senator George J. Mitchell of Maine has emerged as his leading choice to take over the State Department, according to several advisers. The situation at Defense is murkier.

The post-election transition work is taking longer than Clinton expected in part because voters strengthened Republican control of the Senate and the White House is anxious to avoid a confirmation battle. Clinton had enough trouble with nominations four years ago, when the Democrats ran the Senate.

Senate Republicans "will be looking to pick off two or three or four (nominees) to bring the president down, just so he can have a few losses early in the term," one administration official predicted. Nomination fights, he added, "would force the president to waste political capital."

Clinton is keeping his discussions limited to a relatively small circle: outgoing Chief of Staff Leon E. Panetta; his designated successor, Erskine B. Bowles; Vice President Gore; White House counsel John "Jack" Quinn and informal adviser Vernon E. Jordan Jr. "It really is a small loop," said one official.

That has aggravated some leading Democrats left out of that loop. Jesse L. Jackson complained Monday that the White House has made little effort to consult him or his allies and that Clinton seems to be shedding his most liberal aides even as he searches for Republicans to fill some posts.

Among those who have announced or are believed to be leaving the administration are Panetta, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Henry G. Cisneros, senior adviser George Stephanopoulos and Deputy Chief of Staff Harold Ickes - all of whom helped maintain Clinton's relationship with his party's more liberal elements. Bowles, on the other hand, is seen as a Southern conservative.

"Politically, the signal is a substantial shift to the right," Jackson said in an interview. Jackson said he was particularly irked by the hunt for Republicans. "We are the Democrats. We won the election. And to the victor goes the spoils."

As Clinton surveys his top lieutenants, two of the four most senior Cabinet posts appear set. Treasury Secretary Robert E. Rubin and Attorney General Janet Reno both plan to stay. Although the White House has not always been happy with Reno, who has appointed four independent counsels to investigate the administration, officials apparently have concluded that they have no choice but to keep her.

Replacing retiring Secretary of State Warren M. Christopher is Clinton's top priority. Aides say Clinton and Mitchell bonded during the presidential debate rehearsals this fall when the former Senate majority leader played the role of Republican Bob Dole. "It was a real crash course in getting to know each other," said one official who watched their relationship grow.

Mitchell offers virtually none of the foreign policy experience that other contenders would - like U.N. Ambassador Madeleine K. Albright. His only real exposure to diplomacy has been a special peacemaking assignment in Northern Ireland for Clinton. But some officials noted his deep roots on Capitol Hill, which the administration is losing with Panetta's departure.

Clinton's thinking doesn't appear to be as sharply defined in terms of replacing Defense Secretary William J. Perry. Central Intelligence Agency Director John M. Deutch remains a strong candidate, while others mentioned include retiring Sen. Sam Nunn, (D-Ga.), retired Gen. Colin L. Powell and retiring Sen. William S. Cohen, (R-Maine).

Most domestic posts will not be addressed until after Clinton's Hawaiian vacation and subsequent trip to Asia. But several officials discounted reports that Ickes would be nominated for either Labor or Interior secretary as a consolation for not being named chief of staff.

Because he once represented a New York union with ties to organized crime and stewarded the president's political operation. an Ickes nomination could provoke the type of confirmation battle Clinton wants to avoid.