WASHINGTON -- President Barack Obama is in what appears to be the final stages of choosing a new White House Chief of Staff from among the following candidates, in approximate descending order of likelihood, according to a very highly placed administration source: Acting Chief of Staff Pete Rouse, former Clinton Commerce Secretary Bill Daley, former South Dakota Sen. Tom Daschle and -- a dark horse candidate -- Agriculture Secretary and former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack.
Each has strengths and weaknesses, the source said, and it is possible that all four will be offered -- or will accept -- some role other than chief of staff. "The president has been talking to all of them and it is fluid," said the source, who declined to be named because he is close to the talks.
Speculation has focused on Daley, a banker and brother of the outgoing mayor of Chicago. He is the favorite of former chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, now running for Chicago mayor. Daley and Emanuel have been proteges for years. Just as important, perhaps, Daley is very close to Vice President Joe Biden. Daley was a key advisor and supporter in Biden's first presidential campaign in 1988.
Biden originally had supported his own VP Chief of Staff, Ron Klain, for the Obama job, but it was clear by mid-October -- when Rouse was named acting chief of staff upon Emanuel's departure -- that Klain would not get the job. Klain and Biden announced today that Klain was leaving the administration to turn to the business world.
Rouse is the favorite of the longtime Obama loyalists and campaign people -- a category that did not originally include either Emanuel (who remained neutral in the primaries in 2008) or Biden, who ran for the nomination himself. As acting chief of staff, he has won plaudits for his touch, his calm demeanor and his loyalty. But he is in his mid-60s and is not considered a top-flight manager.
Neither is Daley, whose calling card is his vast knowledge of people in Democratic politics and in corporate business. He is currently a top official at J.P.Morgan Chase. He recently remarried. He turned down the offer to be ambassador to China at the start of the administration, and some thought that his new marriage might keep him in Chicago. But he has been in serious talks with the president.
"Obviously, if Bill were to become chief of staff he'd need somebody to take care of the details," said this source. "He's not a detail guy."
Daschle, the former senator, is. He was in line to become chief of staff after Obama won in 2008, but his chances were derailed by questions about his business ties and those of his wife, Linda, a lobbyist. The president and his inner circle seem rather less concerned about such ties now, at least judging by the fact that the president has been talking to both Daley and Daschle, who has advised the health care industry, among others.
"The president has talked a lot to Daley and Daschle," said the source. Extensive talks with Rouse are apparently less urgent, since the president has worked with him not only in the White House but in the Senate, where Rouse was then-senator Obama's chief of staff.
"Everyone loved Pete," said another source, who had worked with Obama in the Senate and who is now a part of the administration. "Everyone who worked in the campaign or in the Senate would love Pete to take the job on a permanent basis."
A late and perhaps surprising entry in the chief of staff Derby is Vilsack. He is widely seen as a team player and a good manager. His work at the Ag Department has won plaudits -- as has, perhaps more important, his successful lobbying for a child nutrition bill that was a pet project of First Lady Michelle Obama.
Vilsack has led an informal group of cabinet members who are former governors, and who have told Obama bluntly that he needs to listen to grassroots politicians more than he has so far.
The former governor has an additional benefit: he knows Iowa, having been governor there. If Obama is ever going to face a primary challenge -- as unlikely as that is -- Iowa is where it would start in 2012.
Where Rahm stands is clear. He's for Daley. And what Rahm says matters, since he might well be mayor of Chicago by the time Obama runs again. Where the campaign people stand is clear: they want Rouse or Daschle. It's not clear who wants Vilsack, except that the president likes him.
And what about the views of outgoing senior advisor David Axelrod? He's a Chicago guy, but also an Obama guy. We'll know soon enough.