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

Published: Monday, June 4 2012 7:00 p.m. MDT

But Chaffetz downplayed talk of Leavitt as a potential chief of staff under Romney.

"There will be all kinds of swirling rumors. I don't think anybody's discussed that yet. It's much too presumptuous, and much too early," Chaffetz said. "I've never heard anybody say anything about that."

Longtime Romney supporter Kirk Jowers, head of the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics, said Leavitt "would be a phenomenal chief of staff" given his experience at the state and national level.

"No one has more relevant experience," Jowers said, including with the "past Republican power brokers under Bush" who could prove useful to a new GOP president.

Jowers said there likely would be little concern raised if Romney chose another member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as chief of staff.

"Chief of staff is the one free pass for the president to get the person he trusts most," Jowers said. Leavitt has the trust of Romney and his team because he's seen as having no ulterior motive for his work on the campaign, Jowers said.

Matthew Wilson, a professor who specializes in politics and religion at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, noted Leavitt's faith was not an issue when he worked in the Bush cabinet.

"It's very different if you're talking about a vice presidential nominee or someone nominated to the Supreme Court," Wilson said, because that could be seen as attempting to empower someone who shares the faith.

A chief of staff is viewed differently, he said. "I'm pretty sure 99.9 percent of Americans would have no idea what the religion of the last 10 chiefs of staff have been."

Rich McKeown, Leavitt's chief of staff in Utah and Washington, D.C. and a co-founder of Leavitt's consulting firm, Leavitt Partners, said his former boss and partner is well-suited to help Romney's transition.

"He's more interested in results than he is in credit," McKeown said. "I spent 12 years with him in public sector offices, another three in the private sector. I can just tell you that what you see in public is what you get behind closed doors. There's not pretense. There's not posturing. What you see is what you get."

Leavitt, who is also a member of the Deseret News Editorial Advisory Board, is spending much of his time at Romney's Boston campaign headquarters these days, away from his company's Salt Lake and Washington offices. "It is a big, big assignment," McKeown said.

But he declined to talk about whether Leavitt would leave his business behind and follow Romney into the White House.

"While our business focuses on the future, we've chosen not to speculate on the future," McKeown said.

LaVarr Webb, a policy adviser to then-Gov. Leavitt, said Leavitt has good political instincts, honed running a number of campaigns before running for office himself.

"I've never met anybody who has a better instinct for politics, for when you can accomplish things and when you can't," said Webb, now a political consultant and publisher of Utah Policy, an online publication.

"This is a very important job and a key responsibility," Webb said. "If Romney doesn’t win, it's a lot of work for nothing. But if he does win, all the attention turns to the transition."

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