WASHINGTON — As President Obama looks to fill Cabinet positions, the spotlight is steadily focusing on longtime Harvard physicist and leading national security strategist Ashton B. Carter, a top lieutenant to the past two secretaries of defense who has influential supporters among both parties in Congress.
According to several knowledgable officials, Carter, 58, has been on the short list to replace Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta when he steps down as planned next year, and his chances have improved with growing signs that another top candidate, former senator Chuck Hagel, a Republican, could face a difficult confirmation process in the Senate.
Carter, whose office said he couldn't comment, appears to be the favorite of the Pentagon bureaucracy. Over the past two decades, between long stretches at Harvard's Kennedy School, he has filled various top posts at the Pentagon. There he has earned the nickname "The Deliverer" for expediting the delivery of much-needed equipment to the front lines in Afghanistan.
"Carter is a sleeper brand waiting to hit the market big," said a top Pentagon official who was not authorized to speak publicly about the search for a new secretary of defense. "He may not have household name recognition in Middle America . . . but he's got the full mix of talents to be the next secretary. He's well known for his procurement and budget expertise, and over the years, he's also developed strong relationships with senior military leaders and the Hill."
Also said to be under serious consideration is former top Pentagon policy official and Obama campaign ally Michele Flournoy, who if selected would be the first woman to run the Pentagon, as well as former Navy secretary Richard Danzig, another close confidant of the president.
Hagel, a former senator from Nebraska, has drawn criticism for his comments alleging the "intimidation" of the "Jewish lobby," and several GOP senators have threatened to hold up his nomination.
Carter, who has long been believed to covet the top Pentagon job, is keeping a low profile as speculation swirls around him. He is seen as a contender for not just the Pentagon post, but also to run the Department of Energy if Secretary Steven Chu moves on, as some predict he will. Carter's background in nuclear weapons and arms control and experience overseeing several green energy initiatives in the military bolster his qualifications.
Carter is not considered part of the president's inner circle; both Flournoy and Danzig are widely believed to be intimate loyalists. It is unclear whether that will play a role in Obama's decision.
One of Carter's mentors, William Perry, the former secretary of defense, said that Carter is currently focusing on his duties as deputy secretary of defense, aware that the Cabinet search "is very complicated with a lot of subtleties."
"He knows his name is on the list, I know his name is on the list," said Perry, a member of the Pentagon Defense Policy Board, an advisory panel, who meets with Carter frequently. "We haven't really talked specifically about this next job.
"He is supremely qualified," Perry said of Carter in an interview. "He has been assistant secretary of defense in policy, the under secretary of defense for acquisition and technology. Now he is overseeing all of defense. He is very well respected in the Congress on both sides of the aisle."
Accolades for Carter have come from a variety of different quarters in Washington.
"Your willingness and ability to bear the burden of senior leadership is both noteworthy and highly commendable. . . . I have come to know you as a hard-working, honest, and committed public servant," Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona, told Carter at a recent congressional hearing.
A former Rhodes Scholar and instructor at MIT, Carter is widely known in national security circles for his keen intellect and uncanny ability to digest reams of both technical data and policy documents. With his scientific background, he understands the inner workings of high-tech weapons but also is steeped in military strategy.
One of his aides recently described him as the "600-pound brain in the room."
Perhaps Carter's best qualification for the top Pentagon job is that he has played a central role in nearly every major national security issue of the last four years.
As the undersecretary of defense, he helped shepherd through a series of budget cuts under then-Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates, including halting the purchase of the Air Force's F-22 Raptor stealth plane. He was also was responsible for ensuring troops had the proper equipment in Afghanistan and Iraq, where he managed the massive undertaking of withdrawing US forces and equipment after eight years of war.
In his current role, he serves as the day-to-day manager of the Department of Defense, immersed in everything from budget matters to preparing a new generation of troops leaving the military for life in the civilian world. He has also played a key role in crafting a military strategy that reorients US defense planning from the Middle East to the Asia-Pacific.
"If Chuck Hagel goes down Ash is going to be on the shortest of short lists as a successor for Panetta," said David Gergen, director of the Center for Public Leadership at the Kennedy School and former White House chief of staff. "I think what he represents is continuity and stability in that job. We have had two successful secretaries of defense in a row (Panetta and Robert Gates). Ash worked for both of them."
Even before joining the Obama administration, Carter was seen as something of a national security whiz. At the end of the Cold War, as assistant secretary of defense for international security policy, "he took the lead in working with the countries of Eastern Europe and former Soviet republics and bringing them into the Western security umbrella," recalled Perry. "I think his work in particular was instrumental in allowing that transition to go smoothly. That could have gone very badly."
While out of government, from his perch at Harvard's Belfer Center for Science and International Security, Carter was an instructor for a generation of national security professionals in the United States and from foreign countries.
His international network was recently on display during a visit to the Japanese Ministry of Defense, when he was greeted by 20 of his former students, both military and civilian.
But Carter is perhaps most remembered in Washington for spearheading the US-led program known as Cooperative Threat Reduction, which oversaw the dismantling of 8,000 nuclear weapons in the former Soviet Union.
At an event commemorating the 20th anniversary of that arms control initiative with Russia earlier this month, Obama singled out Carter for his role.
"I especially want to acknowledge a leader who helped create it and who now helps guide it as our outstanding deputy secretary of defense — Ash Carter," Obama said, "So thank you, Ash, for your great work."