While CNN and the Washington Post (among others) continue to focus on the veep-stakes — and the latest odds for a Kerry-McCain ticket — the Los Angeles Times’ Ronald Brownstein yesterday kicked off a corresponding contest: The secretary of state-stakes.

In fact, Brownstein delivered two takes on the topic: Serious and sweeping on page 1 and brief and breezy on page 23. It was business in the front, party in the back.

In Brownstein’s front-page article, he notes that “early speculation” about who might play Colin Powell in a Kerry White House points largely to individuals “who support the forceful use of military power, including in Iraq, yet place a much higher priority than Bush and his team on maintaining support among allies.” According to Brownstein, those currently “clustering” and “coalescing” around Kerry include: “Richard C. Holbrooke and Samuel R. ‘Sandy’ Berger, former top officials in the Clinton administration; Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.), the ranking Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee; and, more distantly, Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.).” But, as he notes in his page 23 piece, “no one is picking out their curtains yet.”

Thus far, the Kerry campaign “has effectively delegated the process of defining foreign policy alternatives to Bush on many issues to the Alliance for American Leadership, a Democratic group that organizes task forces of party thinkers on world affairs,” Brownstein notes. The Kerry camp, he writes, so far has an “unusually unstructured foreign policy process,” with a “faintly improvisational feel.” In other words, an approach that invites speculation (or “handicapping” the “contenders” and “dark horse[s]” on “early lists,” as he writes in his page 23 piece).

There is some utility for readers in trying to flesh out who else might come with a Kerry package — that is, who Kerry might appoint to advise him and to oversee key executive departments — given that voters often aren’t able to pull the lever (or touch the screen) knowing the identity of the challenger’s potential secretaries of state or agriculture. Still, we’re seven months out, which might explain why Brownstein relies heavily on unnamed “insiders,” “experts,” and the occasional professor or author.

So with Sen. McCain relentlessly slapping down speculation that he will be Kerry’s running mate, perhaps the cabinet-stakes can satisfy the press’s need to guess. Think of it — excluding the veep, some twenty slots about which to fantasize!

Liz Cox Barrett

Liz Cox Barrett is a writer at CJR.