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Team Romney prepares for power and patronage

Romney has promised to do two things on his first day in office – and there are plenty of jobs to fill

Miles from the campaign trail, oblivious to the daily ebb and flow of speeches, rallies and tracking polls, Mike Leavitt is putting finishing touches to the carefully laid plans for Mitt Romney's arrival in the White House.

Mr Leavitt, the former Republican governor of Utah, has been toiling in a suite of government offices just off Capitol Hill, in central Washington DC, since early September. The building currently holds roughly 150 staffers, and is being widely referred to as "The Readiness Project".

His priorities, if Mr Romney upsets the odds to triumph in Tuesday's election, fall into two brackets: to work out how the new president will fulfil his policy agenda during the coming weeks and months and to establish which allies will be rewarded with plum jobs in his administration.

To a casual observer, the very existence of this office may smack of presumptuousness. But "transition teams" have been part and parcel of election races for decades.

"Traditionally, these people don't court publicity, because their campaign doesn't want to look arrogant," says Martha Joynt Kumar, an expert on transitional politics from Towson University in Maryland. "But in recent years, that's changed. In the post 9/11 world they've had a higher profile, because early planning is simply seen as smart."

Mr Leavitt, who hails from a prominent Mormon family, moved to Washington in June, and has been presiding over a growing operation ever since. His deputy is Chris Liddell, a former chief financial officer at General Motors who, in the event of a Romney victory, will run "agency review teams" that could re-shape every government department. Their in-trays are groaning. On the policy front, Mr Romney has promised to do two things on his first day in office: label China a "currency manipulator," and "repeal and replace" Obamacare, President Barack Obama's signature healthcare bill.

Picking a fight with China can be done at the stroke of a pen, but is likely to start an ugly trade war with uncertain consequences. Repealing Obamacare will be trickier: unless the GOP wins a "super majority" of more than 60 seats in the US Senate, Democrats can in theory filibuster any changes to the legislation out of existence.

The Readiness Project's biggest logistical challenge, however, is sifting through applications for top jobs in the Romney White House. Most senior appointments must be cleared by the Senate, so Mr Leavitt's staff are currently digging into personnel dossiers in search of hidden skeletons. "A lot of personal information is required," says Professor Kumar, who is currently writing a book called Mapping the Glide Path, on the Obama transition.

"There's huge competition for these posts, so it's no time to be shy."

Given Romney's governorship of Massachusetts, Professor Kumar expects him to pick from across the worlds of business and politics.

For Secretary of State, for example, the current favourite is Robert Zoellick, a former World Bank president. But his appointment would upset neo-Cons in Republican ranks, who would prefer the hawkish George W Bush ally John Bolton.

Mr Zoellick, who heads Romney's "national security transitional team," is also a contender for the Defence Secretary's job, but that appointment would also upset right-wingers. They prefer Jim Talent, a former Senator from Missouri who is a fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation.

The race for the Attorney General position was, meanwhile, shaken-up this week by New Jersey Governor Chris Christie's "bromance" with Mr Obama in the wake of Superstorm Sandy. Mr Christie was tipped for the job but is now set to be frozen out, leaving Richard Wiley, a former Federal Communications Commission chairman, and Kenneth Wainstein, a former Bush adviser, as favourites.

Completing Mr Romney's top vacancies to fill will be a Homeland Security Secretary. Here, he may go for former presidential candidate John McCain or fellow veteran Joe Lieberman.