Now that the biggest domino has fallen, the political game is on to select a Utah governor in 2010.
Already, it looks like a mix between checkers and chess.
Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr.'s "surprising" appointment by President Barack Obama as ambassador to China has political insiders doing mental gymnastics over the prospects to run the statehouse.
Lt. Gov. Gary Herbert, who will take over as Utah's 17th governor when Huntsman resigns, is considered the favorite. But Attorney General Mark Shurtleff could be a strong candidate, despite his intent to challenge Bob Bennett for U.S. Senate. His entry into the race would be buoyed by his hefty campaign chest.
Then, there is Sen. John Valentine -- he already has formed a campaign organization -- and House Speaker Dave Clark, considered an up-and-comer. Fred Lampropoulos, who ran a well-financed 2004 bid, could join the mix as could Salt Lake Chamber of Commerce President Lane Beattie, Zions Bank President Scott Anderson or Kirk Jowers, director of the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics.
On the Democratic side, most point to Rep. Jim Matheson or Salt Lake County Mayor Peter Corroon as Democrats with a realistic shot for what essentially is an open seat. Former lawmakers Karen Shepherd and Patrice Arent along with current Utah Sen. Pat Jones and Rep. David Litvack are named as dark horses.
Utah's unique caucus-convention system -- where candidates must attend neighborhood meetings to win delegates -- narrows the 2010 special-election window. That means any hopeful who had been gearing for 2012 must shift into action sooner than planned.
"It really starts next March -- that's what people don't understand," said veteran pollster Dan Jones. "That pays for guys that have name ID. That's why it makes Gary Herbert such a strong contender."
Jones predicts most GOP challengers will shy away when they realize how big a war chest and campaign operation they must build in such a short period. "They'll have to go to all 29 conventions. Look at the number of speeches Gary Herbert has given. His image is: He's real."
Another quirk: The 10-day filing period now falls during the last week of the Legislature, inhibiting the governor and lawmakers from campaigning while their opponents are on the stump. For precedent, consider then-Gov. Olene Walker's failed bid in 2004.
Jowers, who says he has neither made a decision about running nor been offered the lieutenant governor's slot, says Herbert's performance out of the gate will be critical.
"In those first two months, people will decide whether he's a legitimate heir to the throne or not and that perception will determine who gets into the 2010 race," he said. "A great indication of his job approval will be the number and caliber of his contenders come September."
That said, Jowers doesn't expect a gubernatorial run from Shurtleff. Voters are "much less intrigued" with Shurtleff following his waffling over a run for U.S. Senate, he says. Plus, Shurtleff's wife seems "resistant," to the idea of his being governor, Jowers said.
"Shurtleff is Senate or nothing," he said.
Shurtleff, who is out of the country, could not be reached for comment.
For his part, Valentine says he will sit on the sidelines -- for now. "I really feel like I need to give Gary a chance to show whether the way he would serve as governor is the same way I believe the citizens of Utah need," he said. "This, to me, is not an ego trip. It really is service to the public."
Lampropoulos who says Herbert is "absolutely" beatable, says he will weigh family and business issues before deciding within roughly 30 days. "It's fair to say I have an interest and I'm going to look at it very quickly."
A run for governor "is certainly not something I was planning for," said Corroon, who "would never say never." He says his "intent" is to finish his second term as Salt Lake County mayor.
Matheson says he will weigh his options. "In politics you always look at your opportunities," he said, "and that's what I always do."
If the centrist-Democrat jumped in, Jowers labeled it the "800 pound gorilla. "No Republican or Democrat looks forward to facing him," he said.
Jones, the pollster, agreed that winning a statewide race with a "D" behind your name is not impossible. "Chances for a Democrat right now are the best I've seen in a long time."
Sen. Sheldon Killpack, who says rumors of his run for governor are flattering "but it's not my long-term goal in life," believes the contest is Herbert's to lose. "I think Herbert is a level-headed guy, but I certainly think there will be a lineup come 2010."
Because 2010 marks an off-cycle governor's race, most would-be frontrunners in the field can run without giving up their current office. The seat will be up for election again in 2012.
Huntsman's exit "changed the things we need to look at and sped the process up dramatically," said Utah Democratic Party Chairman Wayne Holland, noting the national party is buzzing over the news. "This election is not your normal incumbent. It could easily be an open seat."
Holland's GOP counterpart Stan Lockhart argues Herbert has the inside track, but says campaign organization will be critical due to the abbreviated election cycle. "People are trying to kind of figure out who's running for what, when and where," he said.
A second-tier of potential candidates includes a wide range of current and former lawmakers, lobbyists and businesspeople with political ties. Some of those floated names include Kevin Garn, Greg Hughes, David Leavitt, Patrick Byrne, Nolan Karras, Marty Stephens, Pat Rusk and Chris Kyler.
Tribune reporter Robert Gehrke contributed to this story.
Veteran pollster Dan Jones says name recognition is key for any candidate to be on the A list for governor, particularly with the short window before the caucuses and conventions next spring. Here's Jones on some likely contenders:
On Gary Herbert: "It's really hard to deny the nomination to a sitting governor."
On Mark Shurtleff: "His name has been in the news so much, he's got reasonable name ID and is fairly popular."
On Jim Matheson: "Could Jim Matheson get 60 percent at convention? My guess is he could."
On Peter Corroon: "He's going to have to be more forceful, but one thing about Peter Corroon, they trust what he says."
On Fred Lampropolous: "He's got the money. He's a very, very good campaigner. People like his style."
On Dave Clark: "He's a comer, but being from St. George will be tough. It's hard to win governor if you're not from Salt Lake County."
On Scott Anderson: "He really works well with both sides of the aisle. He's involved in so many programs through Zions and is so amicable. He could grow fast on the people."