A few months ago, the smart money was that Antonio Villaraigosa would be the likely Democratic candidate for California governor in 2010 and probably would become the first Latino governor in more than a century.
That, however, was before the Los Angeles mayor admitted to having an affair with a local television anchorwoman -- an admission that may lead to a very messy divorce case.
Infidelity per se may no longer be a barrier to higher office, but the situation has generated some sharp criticism of Villaraigosa's judgment -- enough that his gubernatorial ascension is no longer the semi-sure thing it had appeared to be. A figurative question mark has replaced the exclamation point behind his name.
Politics being a zero-sum game, Villaraigosa's decline from grace boosts the chances of those who had been considered also-rans, as Internet tycoon Reed Hastings' recent million-dollar investment in the future of state schools Superintendent Jack O'Connell underscores.
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Hastings has donated the money to a supposedly independent committee to boost O'Connell's political ambitions.
Does O'Connell, a mild-mannered former teacher and legislator, want to be governor? Does the sun set over the Pacific Ocean each evening? He is, however, merely one of a plethora of potential Democratic governors should Villaraigosa fade, to wit:
-- Attorney General Jerry Brown, polls indicate, is the state's best-known Democrat, thanks to his two terms as governor, two as Oakland mayor and many years of politics in between, and still has eight years of gubernatorial eligibility left under the term-limits law. He would be 72 in 2010 but appears intrigued by the prospect, and the current flap over his global-warming pressure on local governments raises his profile.
-- Lt. Gov. John Garamendi, who's been in the public eye for more than three decades as a state legislator and insurance commissioner and who has run for governor twice before, still yearns for higher office but has a mediocre fund-raising base and occupies an office with almost zero publicity value.
-- State Treasurer Bill Lockyer passed on running for governor last year when he was attorney general, and is a somewhat erratic political figure, but were the opportunity to look ripe, Lockyer would likely test the waters.
-- San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom has zipper problems of his own -- an affair with an underling's wife -- and while that's no problem in San Francisco, his very liberal image as an advocate of gay marriage could be a big problem statewide.
-- Former state Controller Steve Westly lost his bid for the Democratic nomination last year, despite spending heavily from his private fortune, but looks better in retrospect because the man who beat him, Phil Angelides, was a pathetic challenger to Gov. Schwarzenegger. Westly wants to try again.
So there they are -- at least six Democratic alternatives to Villaraigosa, waiting to see whether the mayor regains his political momentum or continues to shy away from the media and the inevitable questions about his tangled personal life.
And what of the Republicans? Their bench is as shallow as the Democrats' is deep, with Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner the only potentially viable candidate now on the handicappers' list, even though a conservative such as state Sen. Tom McClintock is likely to run as well. Poizner is a very wealthy moderate with a diffident persona who has been taking increasingly visible pro-consumer actions that elevate his image.
California has a Democratic tilt in its voting patterns, to be certain, but Schwarzenegger's landslide re-election last year also indicates that a centrist Republican could win under the right circumstances -- such as facing a Democrat who's carrying heavy baggage.
Dan Walters writes about state issues for The Sacramento Bee. Write him at firstname.lastname@example.org.