Black, white, congressmen, county executives, a lieutenant governor and a former civil rights leader. All have been touted for Sen. Paul Sarbanes' (search) job.

The Democratic senator said Friday that he will not seek a sixth term in 2006, an announcement that one observer said will hit the state's politics "like a ton of bricks."

"There are people who have grown old waiting for a seat to open in the U.S. Senate," said Blair Lee, a developer and political analyst. "Incumbency here is a tremendous advantage."

Without an incumbent, a Senate race suddenly becomes attractive to some of those people who have been waiting, on both sides of the aisle.

"I can see them coming out of the woodwork," said Democratic Delegate Joseph Vallario of Prince George's County, outside Washington, D.C. "They'll be some unknowns."

There will be some long shots too. Republican Ross Pierpont (search), 87, said he is too old to run, after decades of trying unsuccessfully to win elected office, but perennial candidate John Kimble said he would "like to try to fill [Sarbanes'] shoes." Kimble's previous political experience is being repeatedly trounced by Democratic U.S. Rep. Albert Wynn (search).

Wynn said Friday that he would take "a very serious look" at the Senate race, one of four House Democrats to do so. Democratic U.S. Reps. Dutch Ruppersberger (search), Chris Van Hollen (search) and Ben Cardin (search) all released statements saying they would seriously consider a bid.

The state's leading Democrat, Rep. Steny Hoyer (search), the House minority whip, made no mention of a bid in a statement Friday praising Sarbanes' tenure. But that did not stop the pundits from throwing his hat in the ring for him.

"The short list has to include Steny Hoyer," said Lee. He said Hoyer is "well-known and well-liked," and has "waited a lifetime to be a U.S. senator."

Other Democrats mentioned repeatedly by people other than themselves include former Baltimore congressman Kweisi Mfume (search). The former chairman of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (search) was expected to call a news conference next week to announce his intentions.

Talk also centered on a possible deal between Montgomery County Executive Doug Duncan (search) and Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley (search), both Democrats who face a bruising primary if they both stay in the race for governor. That problem would be solved if one ran for Senate.

But Josh Kurtz, the political editor at Roll Call Magazine, said both O'Malley and Duncan seem bent on a run against Republican Gov. Robert Ehrlich in 2006 and he could not see either one bowing out to make a Senate bid.

The rare chance to run for an open Senate seat — the last such race was in 1986 — even had Republicans playing "what-if" in traditionally Democratic Maryland.

Barry Rascovar, a columnist for the Gazette newspapers, said the "huge window of opportunity" in Maryland could lead the national Republican Party to target the state in 2006. Lt. Gov. Michael Steele (search) and state Sen. E.J. Pipkin (search) were both mentioned as possible GOP candidates for the open seat.

"At this point there aren't many realistic candidates statewide," Ehrlich said of the GOP field. "Not a lot of people in that group. Mike's certainly in that group."

Pipkin, who tried unsuccessfully to unseat Democratic U.S. Sen. Barbara Mikulski in 2004, said he will consider his options after the legislative session ends in April. But he said the fact that he got nearly 800,000 votes against Mikulski bodes well for Republican chances of capturing Sarbanes' seat.

Kurtz and Maryland Democratic Party Chairman Terry Lierman disagreed.

"I think this is our seat to lose," Lierman said. "Given the prospects of the many talented candidates that we might have, I think the prospects of keeping this seat are excellent if we do our work right."

Which could lead to a crowded Democratic field, a possible plus for Republicans.

Lee said he expects a first wave of candidates to announce early, hoping to pre-empt challengers, followed by second wave that wait to examine field before declaring. But he does not expect the field to firm up anytime soon, with filing deadlines more than a year away.

But Rascovar said that, at this point, it doesn't cost to dream.

"I think that . . . a lot of these people expressing interest in running now will bump up against the reality of raising millions of dollars for their campaign," said Rascovar, who thinks a primary campaign alone could cost $5 million.

"It will be a fascinating 18 months," he said.

Capital News Service contributed to this report.