"He really gave me the opportunity to be directly involved in every decision," Conner told reporters shortly after President Bush accepted Johanns' resignation and put Conner in charge of USDA, at least temporarily.
Johanns, a former Republican governor of Nebraska, is moving back to the state and is expected to run for the Senate. The transition comes at a crucial time at USDA, as Congress works on the 2007 farm bill.
"As deputy secretary [Conner] has already been immersed in the farm bill debate and will not miss a beat in terms of contact with members of Congress," one White House official said.
Conner noted that he chaired some of the farm bill forums USDA held last year around the country, helped write the administration's farm bill policy book and represented the administration in House Agriculture Committee markup sessions. He also was the administration's point man on the 2002 farm bill, while serving as an agriculture specialist on the White House National Economic Council.
Conner said he had not discussed with White House officials whether he would be nominated for the permanent post. Bush aides did not comment Thursday on Conner's long-term prospects.
The former aide to Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., and one-time Senate Agriculture Committee staff director is highly regarded on Capitol Hill for his technical expertise and ability to forge compromises. But some lobbyists and Senate aides have said Southern senators might have reservations about confirming him because he so strongly articulated the administration's plans to change the cotton program and to impose strict limits on subsidies to individual farmers.
Senate Agriculture ranking member Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., said in a statement Thursday he was grateful for Johanns' "dedication and hard work," but he did not mention Conner.
Senate Agriculture Chairman Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, said Conner was "a good choice ... I have known him for over 20 years and believe his involvement in this farm bill process will make for a smooth transition."
House Agriculture Chairman Collin Peterson, D-Minn., added, "Chuck Conner has been running the show behind the scenes on the USDA farm bill agenda, so not much will change now that he's been named acting secretary."
Johanns did not announce his Senate candidacy when he appeared with Bush in the White House Rose Garden, but Bush all but did it for him, saying Johanns would be "an outstanding member of the United States Senate." Bush added that he "couldn't have asked for a better secretary of agriculture."
Johanns will run for the seat held by Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel, who is retiring at the end of his term. But even after Bush spilled the beans at the White House, Johanns remained coy about his political plans.
In an outdoor farewell gathering of USDA employees this afternoon, he said he wanted to spend more time in his home state. To reporters covering that event, he said, "I'm going to go back to Nebraska as quick as I can, and then we'll kind of take it from there."