JEFFERSON CITY - Feeling strong in the wake of major election victories across the state, Missouri Republicans are now saying they have a wealth of strong candidates to run for governor when the office comes open in two years.
"The only problem that Missouri Republicans have now is that we've got so many good candidates who have seen the massive void of leadership in the governor's office" and want to run for the office themselves, said Missouri Republican Party spokesman Scott Baker.
Holden refused to say whether he would run for re-election but said he "wouldn't discount it."
Baker said he knew of at least four strong Republican candidates. He said Missouri Secretary of State Matt Blunt, U.S. Rep. Kenny Hulshof, state Senate President Pro Tem Peter Kinder and House Speaker-designate Catherine Hanaway have all expressed at least some interest, although none has made any official announcement.
Each candidate has different strengths, Baker noted. Hanaway led House Republicans to a landslide victory in the past election, going from an 87-76 minority to a 90-73 advantage. Kinder assumed the top position in the Senate when Republicans took control of that chamber last year and helped Republicans widen their majority from 18-16 to 20-14. Hulshof was so successful in breaking his district's long run of Democratic representation to the point that some now see him as unbeatable within the district. And Blunt is the only one of the four who has been elected to statewide office and has the valuable characteristic of name recognition.
Blunt said at a news conference Thursday that a run for the governorship was a possibility, but that no announcement was imminent.
"I'm certainly exploring all options, and lots of people are encouraging me to run for governor in 2004," he said.
Before being elected secretary of state, Blunt represented southwest Missouri in the state House for two years.
But when Blunt won election in 2000, he was the only Republican to win any of the five statewide offices that were up for election.
Some Republican operatives have said privately they feel Blunt, 32, has not yet paid his dues and should wait a few years before running for higher office.
If Blunt runs for governor and wins, he would become the youngest governor in state history, taking office at age 34. The man who currently holds that recognition, now-U.S. Sen. Kit Bond, assumed the governorship in 1973 at age 37.
What also may work in Blunt's favor is the power wielded by his father, Republican Congressman Roy Blunt, who represents southwest Missouri. The elder Blunt was just elected to the third-ranking spot among Republicans in the U.S. House, and some feel he could be the next speaker when Illinois' Dennis Hastert retires.
But Hulshof has made no secret over the past few years of his desire to run for governor.
Hulshof, whose district includes Columbia and northeast Missouri, was first elected to Congress in 1996. That win unseated 18-year veteran Democratic Rep. Harold Volkmer.
Hulshof immediately entered the ranks of Republican leadership, being elected president of his freshman class. And each year since he was first elected, he has consistently widened his majority over his Democratic opponent. In this year's elections, he won by more than 83,000 votes.
But Hulshof's name has surfaced before in rumors about seeking higher office. After Mel Carnahan posthumously defeated John Ashcroft in the 2000 race for the U.S. Senate and Carnahan's wife Jean was appointed to fill the seat for two years, Republicans searched for a candidate to run in 2002. Speculation temporarily focused on Hulshof, but the Republicans eventually chose Jim Talent, who won the seat in this month's election.
One issue that has dogged Hulshof throughout his political career are allegations of misconduct when he was an assistant prosecutor in Cape Girardeau before his election to Congress.
An interview scheduled with Hulshof was canceled at the last minute after his father died Friday morning.
Kinder, R-Cape Girardeau, rose to power after Republicans took control of the state Senate in 2001. He was at the helm this fall as his party increased its lead in the Senate by two seats.
During this year's session, he and House Republican Leader Catherine Hanaway led the failed effort to build a new stadium in St. Louis and rehab stadiums in Kansas City, which would have spent $646 million over 30 years. Kinder has led the fight against Democratic Gov. Bob Holden on issues such as collective bargaining, but worked with the governor on the stadium bill.
Hanaway, R-St. Louis County, led her party's massive gains in the House, putting the GOP in control of that body next year for the first time since 1954.
In addition to work on the stadium bill, she led the Republican fight against Holden on revenue issues at the end of last session. Senate Republicans had agreed to dip into the state's budget reserve fund, but Hanaway rallied House Republicans to block the measure.
Many veteran and freshman GOP representatives credit her for strong leadership and seeing through the goal of taking control of the House.
Ken Warren, political science professor at St. Louis University, said he thought Blunt was "the heavy favorite" to win the Republican nomination in 2004.
Blunt is the only Republican who has proven he could win on a statewide level, Warren said.
"A lot of people who are big in their parties are not known outside of their districts," he said.
But because the Blunt family name is so well known in Missouri, Warren said he thinks Matt Blunt has the best chance to beat Holden.
Blunt "is very visible as secretary of state, and he by far would be the most likely person to win the party's nomination and be the most viable candidate against Holden in 2004."
What may complicate the issue even further is that Republican U.S. Sen. Kit Bond comes up for election in 2004 as well. Bond is completing his third term in the Senate after he served two terms as governor.
A Bond spokesman said the senator had not yet made a decision on whether to seek re-election and would not do so for several months.
Hulshof, Kinder and Blunt have met at least twice to discuss their future plans, most recently this Thursday. But no details of the meetings were released.
Although the GOP is feeling confident, Democrats are not so sure about the wave of Republican popularity. Even with the GOP netting a win of 14 House seats, Democrats have repeatedly commented that many of those seats were won by slim majorities.
Holden has faced a tough time through his first two years in office, and he has refused to say whether he will run for re-election when his term ends in 2004.
State Auditor Claire McCaskill, also a Democrat, was re-elected this month to a second term that would end in 2006. During her campaign, she said she wanted to run for governor in the future but said she planned to wait until 2008. But when asked earlier this week if that pledge still stood, she refused to answer.
Warren said it would be political "heresy" if McCaskill chose to run against Holden.
Baker, the Republican spokesman, said he liked his party's chances in 2004.
"We have no shortage of quality candidates, and that's a good problem to have."