The Massachusetts governor's race, not always close but always entertaining, now looks like it will be one of the marquee matchups in the nation this fall.
The sudden entrance of Olympics organizer Mitt Romney into the race and the dramatic departure of incumbent Gov. Jane Swift leaves the Bay State fielding formidable candidates in both parties who could quickly rise to national prominence with a victory.
At the very least, the race promises to be competitive. After 11 years of Republican governors, the Democrats were already thinking about what furniture they would want in the corner office on Beacon Hill. This is, after all, Massachusetts: Less than a sixth of the electorate is Republican, and Ms. Swift, though garnering national recognition for being the first woman governor of the state and the first in the nation to give birth while in office, was eminently vulnerable because of a series of political missteps.
Most polls gave her about as much chance against the Democrats, any Democrat, as the Red Sox have of winning this year's World Series, any World Series.
But along comes Mr. Romney with his deep pockets and Windex-clean image. Suddenly, the race looks like it could be one of the tougher fights since "Silent Cal" Coolidge edged out Richard Long for the governorship in 1918 by fewer votes than the population of Dorchester.
"It's a remarkable turn of events," says Carol Hardy-Fanta, a political analyst at the University of Massachusetts Boston. "It's going to be a tough race for the Democrats."
In a single day, the Republicans avoided a bitter primary battle by trading in a weak candidate for an outsider untainted by scandal. The five Democratic candidates, meanwhile, are left fighting among themselves and revamping their fall campaigns.
Certainly Romney does bring some advantages to the race. He enjoys widespread name recognition. As a former successful venture capitalist in Massachusetts, he has amassed a small fortune and is a prodigious fundraiser. He also earned respect for his spirited, but ultimately quixotic, challenge to Edward Kennedy for a US Senate seat in 1994.
His new sheen as cleanup man for the bribery-tainted Salt Lake Games will help the Republicans fend off attacks about mismanagement of the Big Dig and the Massachusetts Port Authority, among other things.
A Suffolk University poll conducted last week already showed Romney ahead of the two Democratic front runners, state Treasurer Shannon O'Brien and former Labor Secretary Robert Reich. "The Republicans have just been able to dump their last 12 years of baggage," says Lou DiNatale, director of the McCormack Institute at the University of Massachusetts at Boston.
Yet Romney, the Harvard-educated son of a former Michigan governor, is hardly invincible. Many voters haven't forgotten that the last two Republican governors here skipped office midway through their terms to pursue ambassadorships.
Moreover, Democrats believe Romney has weaknesses they can exploit. They are already trying to portray him as a carpetbagger parachuting in from his new Utah home. "He's coming off Mt. Olympus and dropping into Massachusetts," says Jane Lane of the Massachusetts Democratic Party. "He has the name recognition and that knight-in-shining-armor glean to him. But what do we really know about him?"
Democrats will also try to label him as too conservative for the state. In 1994, the Kennedy camp was successful in painting him as anti-labor after widespread layoffs at his venture-capital firm.
The Republicans now have "a slim chance instead of no chance," says Tobe Berkovitz, a professor at Boston University.
Romney may be most vulnerable on abortion. In a letter to a Salt Lake City newspaper last year, he said he didn't "wish to be labeled pro-choice." In announcing his candidacy, he reiterated that he opposes abortion but would support a woman's right to choose under state and federal law.
One Democratic candidate, state Senate President Thomas Birmingham, immediately criticized Romney's stance on the issue. Other Democrats are trying to reposition themselves in the wake of his entrance.
As the only woman left in the race, Ms. O'Brien may be the beneficiary of Acting Governor Swift's departure, analysts say.
Or, Romney's outsider status and potential appeal among independents could strengthen the candidacy of Mr. Reich, who, as an outsider himself, would be better insulated from attacks that he's just another establishment politician.
Even before this week, the Massachusetts governor's race was full of dramatic turns. Swift, the nation's youngest governor, struggled to find a Republican willing to run with her as lieutenant governor.
She finally enlisted a suburban mayor who is the first openly gay candidate for a state high office in the country.
The state's highest court and legislature faced-off over a lawsuit by a Democratic candidate, Warren Tolman, for public-campaign financing.
But this week's events were virtually unprecedented a sitting governor ceding her party's nomination to a candidate who hadn't even declared yet. In the end, Swift said she couldn't balance family and a hard-fought campaign while leading the state.
Some Republican activists now sense victory.
"I was going to hold my nose and pull the ballot for her, but this is a much better scenario," says Maureen Kuhn of Wilmington, Mass.