BIRMINGHAM, Ala., Oct. 24 (Reuters): Does US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice want to be president? Even a young girl at a photo opportunity with Rice in her former elementary school wanted the United States' most prominent black Republican to answer the question.
Rice, whose wide smile had been fixed on her face as the 10- and 11-year- olds asked her about growing up in the segregated South and playing the piano, furrowed her brow and narrowed her eyes for an uncomfortable moment.
Sitting on a knee-high chair in front of shelves of books and teddy bears-and next to the Stars-and-Stripes flag brought in for the occasion by her staff-she shot a nervous look at the media invited to observe a three-day tour of her home state.
Rice recovered her composure, laughed and turned on the charm fit for a campaign trail, telling the pony-tailed, black girls from Brunetta C. Hill school in Birmingham that they could be president in a nation that has had neither a woman nor a black commander-in-chief.
"I don't want to run for office. I like what I'm doing," the highest-ranking black woman in US government history said.
The reply was a variation of a denial-that she was not testing the waters for a 2008 presidential bid-which Rice was obliged to make repeatedly on a trip saturated in public relations and politics that ended Sunday.
Former secretaries of state made no such extensive domestic tours and Rice has usually travels outside Washington only to deliver policy speeches in one- day outings.
Rice's aides said the weekend trip with Britain's Foreign Secretary Jack Straw as her guest helped explain to Americans how diplomacy works.
But voters in Republican Alabama were not buying it: a foreign policy chief with tasks such as stopping Iraq from imploding in civil war did not take time out for a hometown tour unless she was building political capital, they said.
At a University of Alabama football game, where Rice waved and smiled like a rock star in the centre of the field to more than 80,000 screaming fans, supporters in the home team's crimson colors debated when, not whether, she would run.
"She's just here driving up votes for office," Evelyn Casey said, noting how the Bush administration needed to improve its reputation in the South after criticism of its response to Hurricane Katrina.
Bobby Cole interrupted his fellow fan as they shared beers and burgers before the game to echo what some political analysts say could be Rice's more realistic ambition in 2008 -- to be vice president. "She isn't ready for president yet," he said.
Straw was along simply to "help one of his buddies with her political campaign," Bob Thomas added.
As Rice's motorcade of black SUVs with tinted windows sped past, admirers shouted "2008" and "Tell her to run for president."
That reflected sentiment found not just in Alabama but on the Internet too, where there is a "Draft Condi" campaign offering bumper stickers, T-shirts and baseball caps to "make it happen" in 2008.
Several white men are favourites to win the Republican nomination for 2008.