The airplane came to a stop, the door opened and out popped Tony Blair. At the bottom of the stairs to greet the former British prime minister on Saturday was Sen. John Kerry, looking every part the diplomat.
Four years after a failed presidential bid and amid a race for a fifth Senate term this fall, Kerry's moves have prompted some questions:
- Is the Massachusetts Democrat positioning himself to be secretary of state in a potential Barack Obama administration?
- Could a Kerry appointment create not one but two Senate openings in Massachusetts, assuming Sen. Edward Kennedy cannot complete his term after being diagnosed last week with brain cancer?
Kerry aides insist he's not angling for the job and point to his long involvement in foreign affairs. It started with his famous testimony as a 27-year-old veteran questioning the Vietnam War before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. It continues today, at age 64, as the No. 3 Democrat on the same panel.
But envisioning him in the post would hardly be a stretch given Obama's chances at securing the Democratic nomination, a general election shaping up as a "change" campaign and Kerry's relationship with the Illinois senator.
Kerry would likely face competition from Sen. Joseph R. Biden of Delaware, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee; Sen. Chris Dodd of Connecticut, a former Peace Corps volunteer who also sits on the panel, and former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota, a top Obama adviser.
Over the weekend, Kerry wrote a Washington Post op-ed column chastising President Bush and John McCain, the Republican presidential nominee-in-waiting, for criticizing Obama after he said that, as president, he would be willing to negotiate with U.S. opponents such as Iran.
In recent weeks, the Senate has also passed Kerry-sponsored resolutions seeking humanitarian aid for Burma and Robert Mugabe to step aside as president of Zimbabwe, while Kerry has filed legislation to remove South African President Nelson Mandela from U.S. terrorist watch lists.
The senator invited Blair to this island getaway last weekend so they could discuss the Middle East and climate change.
"John Kerry would love to end his career as secretary of state. It would be a capstone to a life that has always been devoted to public service, but in particular has been focused on foreign affairs," said Jeffrey Berry, a political science professor at Tufts University.
Kerry helped Obama burst on the national stage by selecting the then-Senate candidate to deliver the keynote speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention. And he endorsed Obama over rival Hillary Rodham Clinton even though she had just won the New Hampshire primary.
Yet an Obama spokesman kept a respectful distance from questions about a potential Cabinet appointment.
"Senator Obama appreciates his close friendship with Senator Kerry, his service to this country and his early support for our campaign. It is obviously far too early to even speculate about the makeup of an Obama administration — as we are still in a nomination fight — but with his depth of expertise, especially on issues of foreign policy, Senator Kerry would be on the short list for anyone's Cabinet," said spokesman Bill Burton.
Kerry aides recoiled at the question, fearful it would renew criticism the senator has his eyes anywhere but on his homestate constituents.
The issue has taken on added sensitivity in an election year in which Kerry faces at least one Republican opponent, and amid questions about Kennedy's health.
Were Kennedy unable to complete his term, Kerry would face pressure to assume the role of a Democratic colleague many have dubbed the state's "go-to guy" in Washington. Senate vacancies in Massachusetts are filled by special election. While the state is heavily Democratic, it has a history of electing moderate Republicans to high office.
"Senator Kerry is running for re-election to the U.S. Senate, where he was recently ranked the twelfth-most powerful member," said spokesman David Wade. "He looks forward to continuing to chair the Middle East subcommittee, where he's focused on the war in Iraq and security in the region. The only job he has his sights on is the one he already holds and he plans to stay right there."
Foreign affairs provided a flashpoint in Kerry's presidential campaign. While the senator voted in October 2002 to authorize military action against Iraq if necessary, he criticized Bush for failing to expand allied support for the March 2003 invasion.
Later, during an October 2004 debate, Bush criticized Kerry for saying military action should pass a "global test" of legitimacy within the U.S. and among its allies.