The potential appointment of Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano to lead the Homeland Security Department could signal a shift in focus away from the war on terror and toward domestic concerns, especially immigration.
As governor of a border state, she has been on the frontline of the simmering debate over illegal immigration.
"From a policy standpoint, if I were to guess, she would want to do a pretty serious and systematic review of the border strategy at this time and whether it's achieving its goals," said Doris Meissner, head of the Immigration and Naturalization Service under President Bill Clinton and now a senior fellow at the Migration Policy Institute.
"Of all of the parts of the immigration system, more money has flowed into the border enforcement part of the system than by far in any of the rest of it. Any leader or new group of leaders needs to ask if we are getting the payoff that is commensurate with the investment," Meissner said.
A focus on immigration would necessarily entail a swing away from the department's focus on counterterrorism, but with the disparate DHS portfolio, the next secretary will not be able to ignore other issues.
"I think [a Napolitano nomination] suggests kind of a direction that an Obama administration would want the department to take," said Matthew Levitt, a senior counterterrorism and intelligence fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
Levitt said he thought it was important to have someone with executive experience at the helm.
"Clearly, they wanted someone who has experience leading a large organization," he said. "I think executive experience in a is critical in a bureaucracy like DHS, which is not only huge but young, and that's one of the things she brings.
Levitt said that the 22 component agencies that make up DHS have "old, competing cultures," and need a strong executive to bind them and plot out where the department will go in the future.
Mark Krikorian, executive director, Center for Immigration Studies, a group that supports decreased immigration, says the pick could be a clue to future policy planning.
"It could mean that the Obama administration picked an immigration person for this job because they want to burnish their pro-enforcement credentials to make a more plausible case for amnesty down the road," he said.
From Krikorian's point of view, "She's the most plausible candidate a Democrat administration could have picked," but suggested her "hawkish image" on immigration was undeserved.
"She's in a Republican-leaning state where voters want tight immigration control, so she's postured in a hawkish manner, declaring a state of emergency on the border in 2005 and supporting use of the National Guard."
But, he said, Napolitano has not been a strong supporter of more border fencing, vetoed a bill that would have made illegal immigration a violation of the state's trespassing law, and signed an employer sanctions bill only reluctantly.
The man Napolitano would replace, DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff, was more upbeat.
"I've known Janet Napolitano for 15 years," he said. "I was a U.S. attorney with her and I worked extensively with her as governor of Arizona. I think she's an outstanding governor, she was a great U.S. attorney and a terrific friend. I have nothing but good things to say about her."
Napolitano was among the first to call for using the National Guard to police illegal immigration across U.S. borders.
While she has not been a booster of large-scale border fencing projects, her state has led the way in using E-Verify -- an online system operated jointly by the Department of Homeland Security and the Social Security Administration to check the work status of new hires -- and penalizing businesses that hire illegal employees.
At least one public interest group that keeps a keen eye on border policies said Napolitano will be a welcome addition to the Obama administration.
"There couldn't have been a better pick for Department of Homeland Security than Gov. Napolitano," said Ali Noorani, executive director of the National Immigration Forum, a group that favors a broad overhaul of immigration policy. "She has displayed a clear understanding of the challenges and opportunities faced by our immigration system.
Jeff Addicott, director of the Center for Terrorism Law at St. Mary's University, said he hopes Napolitano's legal background will result in her considering the legal implications of DHS actions, which he said the Bush administration often seemed to ignore.
"I don't think [Obama] has the expertise, frankly, in national security, so hopefully, he'll surround himself with people who do have the expertise, so I'm glad to see he has a lawyer looking at homeland," he said. "She needs to take the helm and think of all of these national security issues in terms of the law."
Key Republican lawmakers offered generally positive responses to the potential nomination, first reported by CNN but not yet confirmed by the Obama transition team. Senior Democrats were mum, awaiting official word.
Joseph I. Lieberman, I-Conn., chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, said he prefers to wait until he hears from the Obama camp about the nomination. House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., also refused comment.
Peter T. King, ranking Republican on the House Homeland panel, wasn't as bashful.
"I look forward to working with Gov. Napolitano in a bipartisan way on all homeland security issues, particularly counterterrorism and border security," said the New York congressman, who also served as the chairman of the committee from September 2005 to December 2006.
"Gov. Napolitano's experience as the former U.S. attorney for Arizona, Arizona's attorney general, and as governor warrants her rapid confirmation by the Senate and I hope she is quickly confirmed," said fellow Arizonan, GOP Sen. John McCain.