Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano has emerged as President-elect Obama's top pick to be secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, ABC News has learned.
If Obama nominates her and the U.S. Senate confirms the nomination, the border-state governor will be the first female homeland security secretary.
Napolitano, a former U.S. attorney and Arizona attorney general, had also been mentioned as a candidate for U.S. attorney general. But earlier this week Washington attorney Eric Holder became the top contender for that post.
Though the President-elect's transition team has been tight-lipped on the official status of potential cabinet appointments, Obama's former rival, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., addressed the possibility that the governor of his home state could join the new administration.
Noting that he called to congratulate Napolitano on her move to the top of the list to lead DHS, McCain said in a statement that her experience "warrants her rapid confirmation by the Senate and I hope she is quickly confirmed." He also pledged to work with her through the nomination process.
Of course, in addition to the merits of her selection, McCain is eager to not have a difficult re-election fight in 2010. A few days ago, the 2008 GOP presidential nominee filed paperwork to prepare for that run, and popular governor Napolitano was a possible opponent. Her move to DHS would more easily pave the way to another term for the former prisoner of war.
When Obama takes the oath of office in January, security will be high in the nation's capital as hundreds of thousands come to witness history in the making. Along with the historic moment, the Department of Homeland Security will undergo its first transfer of power since it was formed after the terrorist attacks of 9/11.
The department's sixth anniversary falls a few days after the new administration takes control. Whoever's selected to head the young agency gets to leave his or her mark as the agency continues to define its mission of guarding the United States against terrorist attacks, securing the border, enforcing customs and immigration laws and responding to disaster.
But the immediate focus will be on the leadership needs at DHS. The department is made up of 22 separate agencies and 218,000 employees. Although fewer than 200 political appointees serve there, about 80 of those officials are in key management positions. The department evolved from the Office of Homeland Security, which was headed by former Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge.
DHS has been preparing for the transition for some time by placing career officials and deputies in key slots and adding deputy positions to assist with the changes. At a news conference the day after the election, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said, "We have prepared, first of all, in terms of our internal processes, succession plans that make sure there are ... career people who are experienced who are in place in the No. 2 or No. 3 positions in all of our offices."
While plans on paper might be in place, Matthew Rojansky, executive director of the bipartisan Partnership for a Secure America, told ABC News, "It's a new department; it's only been around for one administration.
"It's hugely top heavy ... 150 vacancies in the executive staff is a problem."