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Mike Leavitt's new role heading Romney transition team puts attention on former Utah governor

Published: Monday, June 4 2012 7:15 p.m. MDT

Mitt Romney, center, Mike Leavitt, left, Frazier Bullock and Olympic medalist Joey Cheek talk to Salt Lake Olympic volunteers Feb 7, 2003. Leavitt, the former Utah governor, is heading up transition planning for Romney, the GOP presidential candidate.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — For a job that's supposed to stay under the radar, former Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt's new position with the Mitt Romney campaign is attracting a lot of attention.

Leavitt is leading the campaign's new "Readiness Project," an effort to prepare for the transition to a Republican administration should Romney win the presidency in November. The former governor and member of President George W. Bush's cabinet is also being touted as a top choice for chief of staff of a President Romney.

Romney's campaign first acknowledged the transition effort in an article in Politico, stressing it would be irresponsible for Romney "to not have people preparing for this possibility behind the scenes."

Such planning is typical in a presidential race, but candidates downplay the planning to avoid appearing presumptuous about the outcome of the election.

President Barack Obama's senior adviser, David Axelrod, used the news of Leavitt's appointment as an opportunity to take a dig at Romney.

"It's not standard operating procedure necessarily to make a big point of it," Axelrod told reporters. "I view it as kind of a political gesture on his part to do that. We had a transition process that was very quiet throughout the summer and fall" of 2008.

Leavitt's new role is generating headlines in the political press and generating some criticism from conservatives unhappy with his support for health exchanges, part of Obama's controversial health care law.

The former governor, who left during his third term to join the administration of Bush, the last Republican in the White House, is now a health care consultant specializing in advising clients on dealing with the new law.

Leavitt declined to be interviewed about his new role.

"What I am doing is entirely secondary to the campaign effort," he told the Deseret News. "Consequently, I have not done any interviews on my role beyond the acknowledgement I provided Politico," he said Monday.

Leavitt told Politico he's trying to keep a low profile.

"The most important thing is to let the campaign be the focus of attention and for us to very quietly do what needs to be done, and that's what we're engaged in," Leavitt said.

He also demurred when asked about what he'd do in a Romney presidency.

"I entered into this with the presumption that I'll continue in my private life," Leavitt told Politico. "I've done this because anytime you're involved in a campaign there is patriotism involved and in my case, there's also friendship involved. And lastly, it's really interesting."

Leavitt has been at Romney's side throughout much of his tough presidential primary fight, acting at times as a surrogate or, as Politico put it, the candidate's "first friend."

It was Leavitt who was responsible for bringing Romney, a fellow Mormon then working as a successful venture capitalist in Boston, to Utah to take over the scandal-ridden 2002 Winter Olympics.

Rep. Jason Chaffetz, another surrogate for Romney with Utah ties, said the candidate "has great trust and confidence in Mike Leavitt. They've got a personal friendship and a relationship that dates back before the Olympics."

The Republican congressman said Leavitt is "the ideal person" to lead the transition planning effort, citing his three terms as Utah governor as well as serving as administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency and secretary of Health and Human Services under Bush.

"Mike Leavitt checks every box. It's a combination of experience and personal relationship," Chaffetz said. "He can help outline the parameters of what a transition would look like."

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