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."
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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