COLUMBUS, Ohio — Their names are varied: Team Condi. Rice for America. The Draft Rice movement. Condistas.
But this disparate group of Internet gurus, politics junkies and Hillary haters shares a common goal: Elect Republican Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice president in 2008.
Mick Wright, a professional webmaster in Memphis, Tenn., was one of more than a dozen people to register a draft-Rice Web site in the year after President Bush was re-elected. He said he was driven by the "post-election blues."
"Once that was all over, you started thinking what's going to happen in the next election?" said Wright, a co-founder of http://www.condipundit.com. "The first one to come to mind as a viable candidate was Condoleezza Rice."
Similar Web sites from Seattle to West Sand Lake, N.Y., from Magna, Utah, to Cedarville, Ohio, have cropped up, touting Rice's credentials, marketing T-shirts, bobblehead dolls and "I Like Rice" buttons, and soliciting donations.
The Miami-based Americans for Dr. Rice political action committee has gone further, establishing state-level chapters in key political battleground states, including Ohio and Florida, and putting state chairs in place around the country. A second PAC, Rice for America, emerged in Greensboro, N.C., in July - though neither has yet reported any income or spending to the Federal Election Commission.
Secretary says no
These activist groups declare their independence from the Republican Party, and from Rice herself - who, on NBC's March 26th Meet the Press, told Tim Russert she has no intention of running. Video: Rice denies presidential ambitions
Yet political experts say there is no question that party leaders have a hand in Rice's rise as a potential candidate, and that power brokers will watch closely this fall to see what happens to Rice's fellow black Republicans in high-profile races in Ohio, Pennsylvania and Maryland.
"Nothing happens by chance in politics. Absolutely zero," said Bruce Newman, a DePaul University professor and expert in political marketing. "Everything is driven by marketing, by polling, by market research, and by very careful analysis of voters' preferences."
Newman, author of "The Marketing of the President: Political Marketing as Campaign Strategy," said the emergence of a grass-roots movement surrounding Rice will allow voters to feel they played a role in her candidacy - though he believes she is clearly being groomed as the political successor to Bush in light of Vice President Dick Cheney's health problems and unpopularity.
"The people running the Bush administration, and pushing for the geopolitical repositioning we're seeing take place around the world, would be happy to see that kind of person keep political power down the road," he said.
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Backers like Rice for her intelligence, poise, self-reliance (she would also be America's first single president since James Buchanan was elected in 1857), values, and ability to carry on Bush's international agenda.
At the same time, Newman suspects the push for Rice to run "may have as much to do with the popularity of Hillary Clinton as it does to do with her own abilities."
Greg Haas, an Ohio-based Democratic strategist, said Rice's image makeover is a telltale sign that she is being coached.
"The fact of the matter is when you see somebody revolutionize their style, their appearance and their speaking manner, that is not happening all by itself," said Haas, who ran Bill Clinton's successful 1992 presidential campaign in Ohio. "She has clearly begun presenting a different image, moving from a harsh persona to one of a more warm public official."
Haas said that before Republicans would run a black woman for president, however, they will want to see how two black gubernatorial candidates - Secretary of State Ken Blackwell of Ohio and former NFL star Lynn Swann in Pennsylvania - fare against Democrats this November. And, in Maryland, Lt. Gov. Michael Steele is seeking to become the Republicans' first black senator since Edward Brooke from Massachusetts served from 1967 to 1979.
"If Lynn Swann and Ken Blackwell would get obliterated in the election, it might raise questions about Condoleezza Rice's viability in '08," Haas said. "That's what makes them perfect stalking horses for her candidacy. If they do run strong, it's going to say a lot about her potential for winning."
The Blackwell, Swann and Steele candidacies have coincided with a national push by Republicans to draw more blacks into their ranks.
In June, the Ohio GOP - which favored Blackwell's more moderate rival, who is white, in the primary - sponsored a meeting aimed at expanding black participation in their party. In Maryland, key Republican contributors behind a pair of earlier GOP political efforts labeled as racist - including the Willie Horton ad that leveled Democrat Michael Dukakis' presidential hopes - are now fundraising for Steele.
Haas conceded that asking Ohio's black Democrats to twice in a row support a white candidate over a black Republican one could tax some allegiances.
Pewman is skeptical, however, that Rice is ready for a presidential run so soon. He believes it is more likely Republicans are grooming her as a vice presidential candidate. He said pairing her with Sen. John McCain, for example, could strengthen the GOP ticket against a likely run by Democratic Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton.
"A McCain-Rice ticket is a very strong ticket," he said. "It's very appealing from a demographics standpoint, and it counterbalances the Hillary factor."
Wright, too, has begun to wonder whether a 2008 run is realistic, given Rice's resistance.
"It made some of us realize we really don't know that much about what her domestic policies would be, and we started looking elsewhere," he said.
North Dakota resident Crystal Dueker, an Americans for Dr. Rice volunteer, said she simply admires Rice's positions and abilities and wants to see her become the next president.
"Most of us are colorblind and gender neutral," she said. "We don't care that she's an African-American. She's just an incredible person."
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