(Adds more details, announcement)
By Sue Pleming
WASHINGTON, Oct 31 (Reuters) - The U.S. State Department’s public diplomacy chief and image guru Karen Hughes, one of the last survivors of President George W. Bush’s original inner circle, said on Wednesday she would quit and return to Texas.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Hughes would step down in mid-December but the former television reporter would remain a consultant for the State Department.
“She will obviously leave a very big hole and big shoes to fill,” said Rice, with Hughes at her side. “She will remain a valued adviser to me.”
Hughes, who was sworn in as Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy in September 2005, has sought to combat negative opinions about the United States following the March 2003 invasion of Iraq and its chaotic aftermath.
“I feel that I have done what Secretary Rice and President Bush asked of me by transforming public diplomacy and making it a national security priority,” Hughes said.
However, opinion polls around the world continue to show high levels of anti-Americanism, which the Pew Research Center in Washington says is strongest in the Muslim world.
In five predominantly Muslim countries in the Pew 2006 global study on America’s image abroad, fewer than one-third of those surveyed had a favorable view of the United States.
“Attitudes have grown much more negative in many parts of the world,” said Richard Wike, senior researcher with the Pew Global Attitudes Project. Public support for the United States has even declined among allies Germany and Britain.
Hughes had been close to Bush since before he entered politics by running for Governor of Texas in 1994. Apart from controversial political advisor Karl Rove, who quit earlier this year, she was perhaps his most trusted aide. She still regularly lunches with the president after her trips abroad.
Rice is one of the few remaining members of Bush’s original team and she has said she plans to stay on until the end of his term in January, 2000.
Hughes will return to her home in Austin, Texas, where her husband remained while she took on the State Department job.
She ran communications for Bush’s first presidential election campaign in 2000 and was counselor during his initial 18 months in office before quitting for the first time. She helped handle communications for Bush’s 2004 re-election run.
Hughes is known for her fast-talking, exuberant style, a characteristic that occasionally backfired, especially in the Middle East.
She has also sought out cultural and sporting ambassadors to polish America’s image, like baseball legend Cal Ripken and figure skating star Michelle Kwan.
As public diplomacy chief, Hughes set up rapid-response units to quickly respond to negative articles and gave ambassadors and other senior officials the authority to speak out to change public views about the United States. (Additional reporting by Arshad Mohammed)