ST. PAUL - There is a political buzz this fall unlike any ever heard around Minnesota.
Fourteen months before the next election, the state's political establishment is talking about the governor's race, talk that started the afternoon of June 2 when Tim Pawlenty announced he would not run for a third term. In a packed room just off his office, Pawlenty said the decision came early so others could get into the race.
Potential Republican candidates' names began to emerge as soon as Pawlenty was done speaking, with few willing to rule out a run.
Not hindered by the need to be loyal to a governor of their party, Democrats already had begun to line up to run for the state's top elected post. That line grew throughout the summer.
Ten Democrats have filed paperwork to collect and spend contributions, with at least two more all but certain to enter the race later. Nine Republicans have filed, and more potential candidates' names are circulating.
It is a record crowd, with names many Minnesotans have heard - such as Dayton, Kelliher and Seifert - but many more unfamiliar names.
Leaders of both major political parties are thrilled at the interest.
"Such a large field means that a lot of people are talking about Republican beliefs, Republican ideals," state GOP Chairman Tony Sutton said.
Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party Chairman Brian Melendez said that this is a great time to be "sharpening their skills, honing their messages."
More than a year from the election, those in both parties have plenty of chances to hear candidates. Both sides have more joint candidate appearances planned than activists can remember.
Democrats expanded their traditional Founders Day Dinner fund-raiser ($500 a plate) on Sept. 26 to include a "candidates' fair." Those at the dinner will be able to go from candidate to candidate to discuss issues over dessert.
The DFL has no straw poll or forum at its Minnesota State Fairgrounds event.
Republicans are making a big deal out of their normally routine off-year convention.
Sutton will moderate a forum with all GOP candidates who want to take part on the night of Oct. 2 and he promises to encourage debate among the hopefuls. The next day, each candidate will speak to delegates gathered in St. Paul, then a straw poll will reveal who is ahead.
Republicans expect some of their candidates to drop out if the straw poll shows little support.
The early-February precinct caucuses could be a drop-out point for some candidates, Melendez said. Those attending caucuses will begin the process of picking delegates to the spring state conventions and some candidates may realize they do not have enough delegate support to continue. A series of other local and congressional district conventions could pare the field more.
The two parties' state conventions then become the focus for candidates. The GOP meets in Minneapolis at the end of April, while DFLers plan a June Duluth convention.
In each case, delegates are to endorse a candidate. However, a couple of Democratic candidates have said or strongly hinted that they will not abide by the convention endorsement, but will take the race to a September primary election. Both party chairmen discourage primary contests.
Party leaders' biggest fear may be that candidates go after others in their party.
"All of the candidates and all of our activists see the easiest way for us to lose is to attack ourselves," Melendez said.
Added Sutton: "All I am trying to do is foster a positive atmosphere for the candidates ... to try to keep them from tussling too much. The focus needs to be on the Democrats."
It has been a different political year. In many cases, would-be candidates publicly said they were thinking about running, then said they would run and, finally, made an official announcement, complete with cheering crowds.
"I used to think you were in or out," Melendez said.
Neither chairman knows if all the candidates are in.
"I would not be surprised if one or two more would emerge," Sutton said.
On Sutton's side, the biggest name who could get in the race is Norm Coleman, the former U.S. senator who put up a long fight before the courts declared Al Franken the winner of last November's election.
For Democrats, St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman and Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak have made it clear they plan to run for governor. But, politically, they must wait until after their November mayoral elections to launch their campaigns.
Don Davis works for Forum Communications Co., which owns the Bemidji Pioneer.