COLUMBUS, Ohio – The names are varied — Team Condi, Rice for America, Condistas — yet the goal is the same: Elect Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice president in 2008.
A disparate group of Internet gurus, political junkies and foes of Democratic Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton is pushing a Rice candidacy even though President Bush's top diplomat has said repeatedly that she has no desire to be president.
But the Republican also has declined invitations to rule out a bid in 2008, spoken about the likelihood of a minority winning the White House in her lifetime and taken steps to soften her image — words and deeds that have provided a glimmer of hope to her fans.
Mick Wright, a webmaster in Memphis, Tenn., is one of more than a dozen people who registered draft-Rice Web sites in the year after Bush was re-elected.
"Once that was all over, you started thinking, what's going to happen in the next election?" said Wright, a co-founder of http://www.condipundit.com. "The first one to come to mind as a viable candidate was Condoleezza Rice."
Similar Web sites have cropped up in widely diverse cities, including Seattle; West Sand Lake, N.Y.; Magna, Utah; and Cedarville, Ohio. They are promoting Rice's credentials, soliciting donations and marketing T-shirts, bobblehead dolls and "I Like Rice" buttons.
The Miami-based Americans for Dr. Rice political action committee has established chapters in critical states, including Ohio and Florida. A second PAC, Rice for America, emerged in Greensboro, N.C., last July — though neither has yet reported any income or spending to the Federal Election Commission.
These activist groups declare their independence from the Republican Party, and from Rice herself. Yet political experts suggest party leaders must have a hand in Rice's rise as a potential candidate.
"Nothing happens by chance in politics. Absolutely zero," said Bruce Newman, a DePaul University professor and expert in political marketing. "Everything is driven by marketing, by polling, by market research and by very careful analysis of voters' preferences."
Newman, author of "The Marketing of the President: Political Marketing as Campaign Strategy," said the emergence of a grass-roots movement surrounding Rice will allow voters to feel they played a role in her candidacy — though he believes she is clearly being groomed as the political successor to Bush in light of Vice President Dick Cheney's health problems and unpopularity.
"The people running the Bush administration, and pushing for the geopolitical repositioning we're seeing take place around the world, would be happy to see that kind of person keep political power down the road," he said.
Backers like Rice for her intelligence, poise, self-reliance, values and ability to carry on Bush's international agenda. Recent polls show Rice more popular than other top members of the Bush administration: Almost six in 10 hold a favorable view of her compared with ratings in the 30s for Bush, Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld.
If Rice won, she would be the nation's first black president and its first female president.
While Rice's views on foreign policy are well-known, her positions on domestic issues are not. She has described her stand on abortion as "mildly pro-choice," putting her at odds with many conservative Republicans whose votes are decisive in the presidential primaries.
She recently avoided taking a stand on banning same-sex marriage, saying Americans should be sensitive about discussing issues that touch people's lives.
Greg Haas, an Ohio-based Democratic strategist, said Rice's image makeover is a telltale sign.
"The fact of the matter is when you see somebody revolutionize their style, their appearance and their speaking manner, that is not happening all by itself," said Haas, who ran Bill Clinton's successful 1992 presidential campaign in Ohio. "She has clearly begun presenting a different image, moving from a harsh persona to one of a more warm public official."
Rice has showcased her talents as a pianist at the Kennedy Center, lifted weights for a local Washington TV news show and discussed her musical favorites, from Elton John to Aretha Franklin to Mozart, for a British newspaper. The latter was a favor to rock star Bono.
Newman is skeptical, however, that Rice is ready for a presidential run so soon. He believes it is more likely Republicans are grooming her as a vice presidential candidate. He said pairing her with Arizona Sen. John McCain, for example, could strengthen the GOP ticket against a run by Clinton.