A wide open race for governor

Hartford - Gov. M. Jodi Rell won a landslide victory in her race for a full term in 2006, but don't be surprised if you don't recall the finer details of that contest.

Eclipsed by a national wave that was pushing the House of Representatives into Democratic hands, and by the operatic drama of Sen. Joseph Lieberman's primary defeat and party-jumping general election victory, Rell rolled to a new four-year term over New Haven Mayor John DeStefano Jr. while remaining virtually under the radar.

But while some Democrats may have worried the same could happen again in 2010 - as a race for the statehouse unfolds in the shadow of the increasingly crowded and heavy-spending race by Sen. Chris Dodd against his many opponents - all that changed on Monday.

Rell's decision to bow out after this year and not seek a second full term as governor will ensure that Connecticut will have a new governor, candidates have said, and will demand public and media attention for a contest that might otherwise have been drowned out by the noise of the Senate and national races.

"This is great," said Stamford Mayor Dan Malloy, who is making his second run for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination in a field that also includes Secretary of the State Susan L. Bysiewicz and Lieberman's 2006 primary foe, Greenwich businessman Ned Lamont.

"The press was not likely to cover a Democratic (primary) contest if the governor was in it," Malloy said Thursday at the state Capitol, where he attended a celebration of the one-year anniversary of the first same-sex marriage ceremonies in Connecticut. "So, for a guy like me, who represents one tiny portion of this state in a media market that has nothing to do with New Haven or Hartford, the chance for me to break through was impeded."

"Now, it's no longer impeded. I'm going to get coverage."

To Malloy and other contenders, Rell's decision not to run, and recent poll results from Quinnipiac University show a "wide open" race for governor, in the first election without an incumbent since Lowell P. Weicker Jr. chose not to run for re-election in 1994.

It's wide open on both sides.

Rell's surprise announcement that she would not seek a new term triggered a wave of interest in her own party, with Lt. Gov. Michael Fedele all but declaring himself a candidate for the nomination, and other prominent Republicans, including House Minority Leader Lawrence F. Cafero Jr. of Norwalk and Senate Minority Leader John McKinney of Fairfield, strongly considering candidacies.

(The Republican field has already yielded its first faux pas: Fedele told reporters on the day of Rell's announcement that the governor had privately offered her endorsement, but Rell walked that back in a public appearance the next day, remaining noncommital.)

"We're going straight into a campaign committee - there's nothing to explore," Fedele said last week in an interview. "I know the job, I know what needs to be done, I know what I want to do."

He also said he remained confident that he "will have the support of the governor moving on."

Among Democrats, a Quinnipiac University poll last week showed a divided and still largely undecided electorate, with three of the potential candidates - Bysiewicz, Lamont and Malloy - far ahead of the rest of the pack.

And it showed Bysiewicz, in her third term as secretary of the state, would have been within striking distance of Rell in a head-to-head matchup, trailing by just 40 percent to 46 percent.

With the governor out of the race, Bysiewicz said Thursday, Democrats are well-positioned to take back an office they haven't won since 1986.

"She had been a very popular governor, and I think it is always more difficult to run when you have to go up against an incumbent, particularly one who has been popular," Bysiewicz said. "So there is a sense that the Democrats have an opportunity, and I'm very pleased to be the front-runner among Democrats."

But the poll results suggest a lot of potential for change in the Democratic field. Lamont scored support from 23 percent of party voters, compared to 26 percent for Bysiewicz and 9 percent for Malloy. And Malloy's campaign was pushing the message that most of Lamont's support seemed to be coming from voters sympathetic to Bysiewicz, while the majority still haven't seen enough of any of them to form a strong opinion.

Meanwhile, insiders at the state Capitol were circulating the name of another potential Democratic challenger, U.S. Rep. Chris Murphy, D-5th District. A former state senator who helped push through Connecticut's smoking ban in bars and restaurants, Murphy is serving his second term in Congress since defeating veteran Rep. Nancy Johnson in 2006. A spokeswoman for the congressman declined to comment on those rumors Friday.

And while Democratic candidates wait to see if Attorney General Richard Blumenthal will reverse a previous decision and enter the governor's race, Republicans are also watching for potential late-breaking entries, especially from Kevin J. O'Connor of West Hartford, a former congressional candidate who later served as U.S. Attorney for Connecticut and as the third-ranking official in the Department of Justice under President George W. Bush.

O'Connor is considering a run for governor, he confirmed on Thursday, but has yet to make a decision.

"What I need to do is have a conversation with my family about whether this is the right time to go back to public service," O'Connor said. "I recognize that the decision can't be delayed too long because the race is not that far off."

Blumenthal, too, acknowledged that he is considering a run after being "deluged" with calls and comments since Rell backed out, urging him to reconsider his planned run for another term as attorney general.

"I'm hearing from a lot of people about the challenges and opportunities of a gubernatorial campaign, and I'm listening to them," Blumenthal said in an interview, in which he acknowledged he is also weighing other races, including a rumored run for the U.S. Senate in 2012, when Sen. Joseph Lieberman would be up for re-election.

"I love the job I have now, but I certainly would seriously consider other challenges and opportunities to serve Connecticut and its citizens," Blumenthal said, "whether as governor or senator. But, you know, I'm not going to say more than I have already."

t.mann@theday.com

THE CANDIDATES

Potential candidates for governor in 2010:

DEMOCRATS

Former House Speaker James A. Amann - C

Attorney General Richard Blumenthal - P

Secretary of the State Susan Bysiewicz - E

Former state Rep. Juan Figueroa - P

Former U.S. Senate nominee Ned Lamont - E

State Sen. Gary LeBeau - E

Stamford Mayor Dan Malloy - E

Ridgefield First Selectman Rudy Marconi - E

REPUBLICANS

House Minority Leader Lawrence F. Cafero Jr. - E

Lt. Gov. Michael Fedele - P

Senate Minority Leader John McKinney - P

Former U.S. Attorney Kevin J. O'Connor - P

C = Officially a candidate

E = Formed exploratory committee

P = Possible candidate, no decision announced

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