Massachusetts Republicans, while supportive of President Bush's re-election, are mindful of the opportunity created should John Kerry (search) beat him in November's election: the state's first Senate vacancy in two decades and a chance to break the Democratic monopoly on its 12-member delegation in Congress.
"We don't think there's going to be a race because we all feel that President Bush has the right agenda and the right message and he's going to win in November," said Timothy O'Brien, executive director of the state Republican Party.
Still, "in the case there is a race, we're going to recruit the best candidate," he said.
In the small universe of Massachusetts Republicans, the options are limited but strong, GOP insiders say.
Among the names mentioned are: Gov. Mitt Romney (search) and Lt. Gov. Kerry Healey (search); White House chief of staff Andy Card (search), a former state lawmaker; former U.S. Attorney Wayne Budd; former Suffolk County District Attorney Ralph Martin; Bush fund-raiser Chris Egan, and GOP activist and attorney Gloria Larson.
Reports that former Gov. William Weld, who nearly unseated Kerry in 1996, is house-hunting in the state has fueled speculation that he's interested in running again. Weld, who lives in New York City, did not return calls for comment.
Former Gov. Paul Cellucci is leaving his post as U.S. ambassador to Canada to return home, but his staff denies he has any intention of running for the seat if Kerry is elected president.
Romney spokesman Eric Fehrnstrom said his boss has categorically denied any interest in the job and that Healey has given "no thought" to the race "because she is working hard to ensure a Bush victory in November."
Insiders, however, say Healey, Egan and Budd would be the most viable options — assuming Romney is out — because they have the wealth and name recognition to swiftly put together the strong team needed for a special election.
Egan, whose father, Richard, is a former U.S. ambassador to Ireland and co-founder of EMC Corp., said he's standing by "the Republican party line that speculation on this is a waste of time."
Budd acknowledged being approached about running, but said, "Let's just say it's not on my front burner right now."
White House spokesman Ken Lisaius said Card's intentions are "to make sure the president is well-prepared for a second term."
Martin and Larson did not return calls for comment.
Until last week, Romney would have been able to name a replacement to serve out the remainder of Kerry's term, which expires in 2008, should Kerry win the presidential race. But the state's Democratic-dominated Legislature just stripped Romney of that power. Instead, a special election must be held within 145 to 160 days after a vacancy occurs.
Republicans claim the change will boost the state's Democratic House members, some of whom have waited a long time to run for Senate. Reps. Edward Markey, Marty Meehan, Barney Frank, William Delahunt and Stephen Lynch are among those interested in running.
The GOP has not fared well in Massachusetts politics except for a string of gubernatorial victories. Republicans hold only 29 of the 200 state legislative seats, and the congressional delegation — 10 House seats plus two Senate seats — is all Democratic. The GOP has held the state's corner office since 1990, with a succession of four governors.
One person not mentioned thus far is former acting Gov. Jane Swift, who assumed the post when Cellucci accepted Bush's offer of an ambassadorship. She gained notice for giving birth to twins and for using a State Police helicopter to fly her home on weekends while in office. She bowed out of the 2002 gubernatorial race to make room for Romney.
Despite Romney's protestations, the state Democratic Party is certain he will leap at a chance to go to Washington. He mounted an unsuccessful challenge to the state's senior senator, Edward M. Kennedy, in 1994.
"I think a lot of people are thinking he'll definitely take a shot at it," said state Democratic spokeswoman Jane Lane.