ST. PAUL, Minn. -- The man who lost the 1998 Minnesota governor's race to pro wrestler Jesse Ventura now holds the distinction of losing his U.S. Senate seat to former "Saturday Night Live" comedian Al Franken.
But it's a testament to Norm Coleman's political durability that just a day after he conceded the contest and gave Democrats a filibuster-proof Senate majority, many GOP insiders consider him an automatic front-runner if he enters the 2010 race to replace Republican Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty.
"He'd be the 800-pound gorilla in the Republican field, no doubt about it," said Annette Meeks, a former officer with the Minnesota GOP and one-time aide to Newt Gingrich.
One former Coleman adviser has heard the former senator has had at least preliminary discussions about running for governor in 2010.
"My understanding is that he is actively exploring with the Republican faithful what his prospects are," said Tom Horner, a public relations executive who advised Coleman in his 1998 gubernatorial bid.
Pundits warned for months that Coleman's lengthy legal challenge could damage his political career beyond repair. It also threatened to force a tough call on Pawlenty, whose May announcement that he wouldn't seek re-election cleared the way for a possible 2012 presidential bid.
Speculation circled about whether Pawlenty would have to decide between seating Franken or holding out amid further legal appeals from fellow Republican Coleman. Coleman's concession following a Minnesota Supreme Court ruling in Franken's favor made the point moot, allowing Pawlenty to sign Franken's election certificate blame-free.
Several Republicans said Coleman actually improved his standing with the GOP base by fighting to the end even as Franken's victory seemed an increasingly foregone conclusion.
"Had he called it quits earlier, I think a lot of Republicans would have been upset," said Andy Brehm, who was Coleman's Senate press secretary from 2002 to 2005.
It was a gracious, rested, practically cheerful Coleman who appeared before cameras Tuesday to concede. He demurred on questions about his political future -- but distinctly did not shut the door on a gubernatorial race. Several close associates said they believe he's genuinely undecided.
A spokesman for Coleman's now-defunct Senate campaign said Coleman wasn't granting interviews Wednesday.
Republicans note Coleman would bring name recognition, proven fundraising ability and raw political skill to a wide-open GOP gubernatorial field in a statewide race otherwise dominated by newcomers.
"I do think he'd be the front-runner," said Brian Sullivan, a Republican National Committee member from Minnesota and wealthy party donor.
While Coleman brings certain assets, he would also face challenges. Besides the potential for lingering voter resentment over the lengthy Senate race, Coleman's name appears in a pending Texas civil lawsuit that alleges a friend and political contributor funneled at least $75,000 to the then-senator through an insurance company that employed his wife. Neither Coleman nor his wife are defendants in the lawsuit.
Almost a dozen Republicans have said they're running or considering running since Pawlenty announced he wouldn't seek a third term. Most are more conservative than Coleman, a former Democrat who embraced a moderate image in his 2008 race and voted for the $700 billion bank bailout weeks before the election.
"That probably didn't endear him to some fiscal conservatives," said Ron Carey, who just stepped down as state GOP chairman. "There's certainly an influential segment of the party that wants to have a little bit more purity on some of these issues."
Carey agreed Coleman would be a formidable gubernatorial candidate, but said many in the GOP are ready for a fresh, younger face to lead the party.
Coleman, 59, worked for the Minnesota attorney general's office for 15 years before his election as St. Paul mayor in 1993, as a Democrat. He switched parties in 1997, and was steamrolled in the '98 governor's race by the Ventura phenomenon. But he rebounded in 2002, winning his Senate seat in a turbulent race marked by the plane crash death of incumbent Paul Wellstone, who was replaced on the ballot by former Vice President Walter Mondale.
Name recognition and established fundraising could give Coleman the luxury of waiting at least a few months before deciding on a run for governor. Several Republican candidates already in the race are state legislators who lack similar resources, and need more time to build the kind of status Coleman already enjoys.
"He could easily wait months, even longer, and still be completely viable," said Phil Krinkie, president of the conservative Taxpayers League of Minnesota. "If it was me, I'd say it's time for a little break before I decide anything."