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Rice pulls out; talk turns to Kerry

Susan Rice drew fire for her words on the Sept. 11 attack in Libya.

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Susan Rice drew fire for her words on the Sept. 11 attack in Libya.

WASHINGTON — Embattled UN Ambassador Susan Rice withdrew her name on Thursday from consideration to replace Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, bolstering the chances President Obama will name US Senator John Kerry to the nation’s top diplomatic post.

Rice, who had widely been considered Obama’s top choice, came under unrelenting fire from Republican senators over her public statements about the Sept. 11 attack on the US Consulate in Benghazi, Libya. She was accused of trying to hide the role of Islamic terrorists, a charge both she and top administration officials vociferously deny.

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In a letter to President Obama announcing her decision, Rice said she wanted to avoid “lengthy, disruptive and costly” confirmation hearings.

Such a contentious process, however, would be unlikely for Kerry, the longtime Bay State lawmaker who serves as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Members of both parties continued to praise him on Thursday as a worthy candidate for the post.

“It really opens it up for Kerry,” said Carl Tobias, a constitutional law professor at the University of Richmond and longtime observer of presidential appointments. “There is a comfort level. He has been a colleague [in the Senate] a long time. They can deal with him. They can talk to him. That goes a long way.”

Kerry, who is widely thought to want the job, released a statement praising Rice.

“We should all be grateful that she will continue to serve and contribute at the highest level,’’ said Kerry, who mentioned that Rice helped him in his bid for the presidency in 2004. “As someone who has weathered my share of political attacks and understands on a personal level just how difficult politics can be, I’ve felt for her throughout these last difficult weeks, but I also know that she will continue to serve with great passion and distinction.”

He declined, however, to talk about the ongoing search for a replacement for Clinton, who has signaled she will be leaving the administration as Obama begins his second term.

Some of Kerry’s colleagues quickly took up his cause, and other observers said that they would be surprised if Obama does not tap Kerry, who has been a prominent surrogate of the administration in a series of thorny foreign crises.

“I think Kerry is highly qualified and highly confirmable,” said Senator John Barrasso, a Wyoming Republican and fellow member of the Foreign Relations Committee.

“We all know Senator Kerry very well,” added Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky. “He would likely be confirmed for whatever the president nominated him for.”

Whether that will be the case remains to be seen. A Kerry staffer seemed taken by surprise when told of Rice’s decision to withdraw her name, and a host of political factors would also have to be considered, including the risk of losing a Democratic seat in the Senate and the potential for Republican Scott Brown, who lost his reelection bid to Elizabeth Warren in November, to make another run for the Senate.

Several officials privately called Rice’s exit an opportunity for the Obama administration. If the president were to pass over Rice for the secretary of state job, it would appear as if he no longer had confidence in her. Now she can still be a player and possibly get another top post in his second term — such as national security adviser, which does not require Senate confirmation.

“It was a good way to get out of this box that was getting tighter and tighter,” said an administration official who was not authorized to speak publicly.

Several congressional and administration officials also said the announcement signals that the president will make a decision in the coming days.

Two government officials who have spoken with the White House but were not authorized to speak publicly said the announcement could come in the next few days and include several nominations.

In addition to Clinton, a replacement is expected to be named for Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, while Obama has to decide on a new CIA director following the resignation last month of David Petraeus.

At State, Kerry is not considered a sure bet. Some officials speculated that National Security Adviser Thomas Donilon could get the job instead, opening up his position for Rice.

Kerry has also been mentioned as a possible replacement for Panetta at the Pentagon, but close observers think that job is more likely to go to someone such as former Republican senator and Obama ally Charles Hagel.

Other possible contenders for the Pentagon post are Ashton Carter, a former Harvard professor who is now the deputy secretary of defense, as well as Michele Flournoy, who served in a top defense post earlier in the Obama administration and advised his reelection campaign.

Meanwhile, a former government official with ties to the White House said he was told another second-term move under consideration is the elevation of Carter to become secretary of energy.

For Rice, the withdrawal from consideration to be secretary of state caps three months of withering criticism. Obama defended Rice and her record last month and she made several visits to Capitol Hill in recent weeks to try to assuage the concerns of senators who threatened to block her nomination.

Republican senators also mounted attacks on her record at the United Nations and her stint in the State Department during the Clinton administration — including assertions she was too supportive of African dictators with despicable human rights records. Her financial stake in Canadian oil companies that could benefit from the proposed Keystone oil pipeline also came under scrutiny. The pipeline would be reviewed by the State Department.

“If nominated, I am now convinced that the confirmation process would be lengthy, disruptive and costly — to you and to our most pressing national and international priorities,” Rice wrote to Obama.

Obama, in a lengthy statement lauding Rice, said that while the attacks on her were “unfair and misleading” he accepted her decision and expressed gratitude that she will continue to serve as UN ambassador.

Tobias, the law professor, also lauded Rice’s decision. “She saved the president a fight that would have been very bloody and very costly. I respect her decision to put the country above her own ambition.”

A number of Senate Republicans welcomed Rice’s decision.

“I think it was the correct decision,” said Utah Senator Orrin Hatch. “It’s not a knock on her. . . . She’s a bright woman. . . . The administration did this to her.”

Senate majority leader Harry Reid on Thursday night lamented how Rice was treated, saying she “deserved far more respect than she was shown by certain Senate Republicans. Their behavior was a disgrace to the Senate’s tradition of bipartisan cooperation on national security issues, and beneath the stature of senators with otherwise distinguished records on national security.”

But Rice’s withdrawal may not quiet the criticism over the administration’s handling of the Benghazi attack.

“I respect Susan Rice’s decision and appreciate her commitment to public service,” said Senator Kelly Ayotte, a Republican from New Hampshire and a leading critic of Rice. “However, my concerns regarding the terrorist attack in Benghazi go beyond any one individual. I remain deeply troubled by the continued lack of information from the White House and the State Department. With four of our public servants murdered, it is critical that we get to the bottom of what happened.”

A spokesman for Senator John McCain, who also has been one of Rice’s fiercest critics, said the Arizona Republican would “continue to seek all the facts about what happened before, during, and after the attack on our consulate in Benghazi that killed four brave Americans.”

If Kerry knows anything about his future prospects, he isn’t letting on, several of his aides said Thursday. They were not authorized to speak on the record.

Kerry drew high marks for how he had responded to the recent swirl of speculation about his future.

“He has kept a very low profile and he is not talking to people about it. He has handled it like a statesman,” the administration official said.

Bobby Caina Calvan of Globe staff contributed to this report. Bryan Bender can be reached at bender@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeBender
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