Congressman John Salazar, D-Colo., appears to have moved to the top of the list of the candidates to become secretary of agriculture in the Obama administration.

Salazar, an actual farmer who represents his state's 3rd Congressional District, appears to fit several criteria that could help determine the nominee for the post, says veteran Washington agricultural columnist Jim Wiesemeyer.

“His (Salazar's) stock has risen in the last week,” said Wiesemeyer, a speaker at the 2008 USA Rice Outlook Conference in Little Rock, Ark. “He is a moderate to conservative Democrat. He was born and raised on a cattle operation and is a seed potato farmer. And he is Latino.”

Thus, Salazar, whose Web site says he was raised on a farm where he shared a bedroom with five siblings, with no running water or electricity, “fits in a lot of different categories and may have the inside track on this position,” said Wiesemeyer, vice president with Informa Economics in Washington.

Wiesemeyer said he expects President-elect Obama to name his choice for agriculture secretary before Christmas. The selection will probably be unveiled in the last one-third of cabinet announcements.

“I think that when the transition team gets to that last third they will sit down and figure out where they are on the regional representation and the ethnic background of the nominees that have been announced,” he said. “That's why Salazar could be a good fit.”

Although Salazar may be the frontrunner for now, there's no guarantee he will be the nominee, Wiesemeyer said. “I would remind you that neither of the last two secretaries (Mike Johanns and Ed Schafer) was even being mentioned in the press the morning they were announced by President Bush.”

Wiesemeyer, whose Inside Washington Today column is available by subscription on the Internet, said he really doesn't know who the new secretary will be. (Other candidates who have been mentioned are Tom Buis, president of the National Farmers Union; former Rep. Charlie Stenholm of Texas; and Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin, D-S.D.)

Former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack, who was being promoted for the position by Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin, chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, has since removed himself for consideration as has Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, he said.

Salazar told the Denver Post he had been contacted by the Obama transition team but had not been offered the position of secretary. He said he would certainly consider the position if offered.

“At this time, I am continuing my work on behalf of my constituents in the 3rd Congressional District and preparing for the many difficult challenges facing the 111th Congress,” Salazar said in a statement.

“I'm thrilled that his name is being mentioned. He is a salt-of-the-earth farmer who would serve agriculture well,” U.S. Sen. Ken Salazar (D-Colo.), John Salazar's brother, told the Post.

The selection of the next secretary of agriculture has been a major topic of conversation at the USA Rice Outlook Conference in Little Rock. Several farmers have said they would like to see Stenholm, one of the authors of the 2002 farm bill, get the nod.

“My concern is that we don't have enough political pull to offer the new president to make him decide on a southerner to be secretary,” one grower said. “Few of our states wound up in the blue column.”