"I don't think people around here want in the secretary of state's office someone who's a political operative," Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., said Tuesday. "But I'll give her a fair hearing. It could well be that my perceptions are different than reality."
Further complicating Rice's potential path to Foggy Bottom is the fact that Rice and her Canadian-born husband own millions of dollars worth of stock in Canadian energy and pipeline companies that would profit from the construction of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline.
Rice violated no laws and properly revealed the stock on government financial disclosure forms, according to government watchdog groups. But if she becomes secretary of state, she could face a potential conflict of interest, as one of her first acts may involve the pipeline's permit.
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Despite what seems to be heavy Republican resistance, Obama is staunchly defending Rice, even though he hasn't officially nominated her. In an interview with Bloomberg TV Tuesday, the president called Rice "highly qualified" and said she's done "a great job as U.N. ambassador."
Rice also is fighting on her own behalf. She personally met with McCain, Corker and Republican Sens. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, Susan Collins of Maine and Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire and explained that the information she conveyed in five talk show appearances five days after the Benghazi attack were provided by the intelligence community. She told the lawmakers that the initial assessment on which they were based was incorrect and that there was no protest or demonstration in Benghazi.
A U.S. intelligence official told McClatchy Newspapers that the talking points were written, upon request, so members of Congress and senior officials could say something preliminary and unclassified about the attacks.
The senators said they came away from the meeting with more questions than answers about Rice and appear more resistant to her than before.
"Frankly, I found her to be very defensive and not very forthcoming," Collins said on Fox News last week. "I walked out of the meetings with a profound sense of disappointment. I actually presented Susan Rice to the Foreign Relations Committee in the Senate when she was first nominated to be U.N. ambassador."
Even Moscow has weighed in. A Russian Foreign Ministry source told the Kommersant business daily that the country prefers Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry, D-Mass., over Rice because she is considered "too ambitious and aggressive."
Rice's backers say some of the opposition to her potential nomination seems more personal than professional. They point to her clash with McCain in 2008 and suggest that Graham is using the Benghazi issue to tack more to the right as he faces re-election in South Carolina in 2014. Another factor: Senators could prefer that Kerry, a colleague, get the post.
The battle is personal as well for some Rice supporters. House Assistant Democratic Leader James Clyburn of South Carolina was good friends with her father, the late Emmett Rice, a Tuskegee airman who was born in Florence, S.C., became an economist and rose to the Federal Reserve Board of Governors. Her mother is Lois Dickson Rice, a Maine native who's a former vice president of the College Board and former advisory council chairwoman of the National Science Foundation.
"I think it's absolutely a shame for this young lady, whose roots are deep in South Carolina soil, to get sullied like this by my senior senator," Clyburn said on MSNBC in reference to Graham.
Clyburn and several members of the Congressional Black Caucus have suggested that some criticisms of Rice have racial overtones. Others, including conservative pundit Kathleen Parker, have suggested that sexism is at play, arguing that hot-tempered men in diplomatic and political life haven't undergone the scrutiny that Rice has.
"People who talk about her temperament haven't been in meetings with (the late) Larry Eagleburger and Richard Holbrooke," said former Ambassador Joseph Wilson, who replaced Rice on the National Security Council when she shifted to the State Department. "Those who think she's tough haven't been in meetings with other secretaries of state. She's bright, very tenacious, very skilled, and has as much experience as anybody in the foreign policy establishment."
Still, some who've dealt with Rice in the past say that she's left them feeling cool toward her.
"She always seems to be thinking, 'Which path will get me to state? Is it this one or that one?' " said one Democratic member of the House of Representatives, who requested anonymity in order to speak freely about a fellow Democrat. "She would do whatever it took to get there."
Luck, the former diplomat at the University of San Diego, said he initially worried when Rice was appointed to the United Nations, a body where diplomacy often moves at a snail's pace.
"I didn't know if it was a good fit. I wasn't sure she had the patience for the U.N., which can be a trying place to build consensus," he said. "She had more diplomatic skill than people expected and turned out to be an articulate spokesperson for the U.S."
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