Bill Ritter's pull-out: Which Democrat will want to try to clean up this mess?

At this time yesterday, did you think the big news in Colorado would be Governor Bill Ritter's impending announcement that he won't run for reelection in November? If your answer is "yes," you're lying.

Not that Ritter was looking bulletproof. Far from it. He's proven to be a politically clumsy figure whose attempts to put out minor brushfires have often resulted in larger conflagrations. Note the way he's managed to turn friends into foes, as when, in June, angry grocery workers confronted him at a bill-signing ceremony -- an embarrassing moment he compounded days later by deep-sixing a firefighters union bill. And that's not to mention the whole Stephanie Villafuerte fiasco, which couldn't help splattering Ritter with muck -- including public accusations of an extra-marital affair.

There's zero proof of the latter, and my guess is that the Villafuerte matter is more a symptom of Ritter's weakness than a motivation for him to step out of the arena. Instead, his sudden withdrawal, coming on the same day that news broke about two other prominent Democrats -- Connecticut's Christopher Dodd and North Dakota's Byron Dorgan -- are also dropping their 2010 election bids, suggests pressure from the national party to go away early enough for another candidate to have a real shot at victory in November.

But who'll be willing to step into the crosshairs? Let's look at the three most likely campaigners.

The party's top choice would have to be Ken Salazar, who's managed to pull off the centrist Democrat trick with much more ease than Ritter has. He's long eyed the governor's office, but he's currently Interior secretary for the Obama administration -- a job he appears to relish. He would have a good chance of beating Republican Scott McInnis, who has a tendency to make embarrassing gaffes (like his second website error in recent months). But this looks to be a bad year for Democrats in general, and he'd face a host of horrific problems in Colorado related to revenue shortfalls. He'll need a lot of convincing to jump in -- and he could well decide that it'd be smarter to wait before making a run.

Next: John Hickenlooper, an attractive and likable candidate who also appears to covet the governorship, too. But he's much better known on the front range than throughout the rest of the state, giving McInnis, a Western Sloper, a key advantage. Plus, he's politically astute enough to realize that even strong Democratic campaigners may well lose in 2010. He could conclude that 2014 holds much more promise.

Which leaves Andrew Romanoff, whose quizzical campaign against Michael Bennet has gone nowhere fast. He'd reclaim his good name with the Democratic Party if he gave up on his Senate dreams and went after the governor's office. Victory would be another matter; I suspect that members of the McInnis camp would like their chances against him. But even if Romanoff lost, he's young enough to rebuild his political career. It wouldn't be over for him.

Like it appears to be for Bill Ritter.