HELENA -- Some new potential candidates are surfacing for the 2012 governor's race, including Lt. Gov. John Bohlinger, a former Republican lawmaker who's considering running as a Democrat or even as an independent, and state Senate Majority Leader Jeff Essmann, R-Billings.
Also looking at the race is Carl Borgquist, a Democrat and president of Grasslands Renewable Energy of Bozeman.
And everyone is waiting to see if Attorney General Steve Bullock, a Democrat, runs for the governor's seat being vacated by fellow Democrat Brian Schweitzer or files for another four-year term as the state's chief legal and law enforcement official.
The potential governor candidates would join a race that already features a crowded Republican field and a Democratic race pitting two state senators.
Five Republican candidates already are actively campaigning for governor, some since a year ago. They are: former U.S. Rep. Rick Hill of Helena; former state Sen. Ken Miller of Laurel; Neil Livingstone of Helena, a national security and anti-terrorism consultant; Chouteau County Commissioner Jim O'Hara of Fort Benton; and former state Sen. Corey Stapleton of Billings.
Democrats already in the governor's race are state Sens. Larry Jent of Bozeman and Dave Wanzenried of Missoula.
Jent debunked rumors that he would run for attorney general if Bullock enters the governor's race and took a veiled shot at him, saying, "I think people are looking for decisive leadership, and part of that's figuring out what you want to do."
Sen. Ryan Zinke, R-Whitefish, has been mentioned as a candidate for governor or as Livingstone's running mate for lieutenant governor, but he wasn't tipping his hand yet. He said he'll make his decision by mid-July.
"I'm looking at where I can make the most progress in helping Montana take a giant step forward," the retired Navy SEAL officer said in an email. "We just can't have more of the same. We need better jobs, better education and a better future. North Dakota and the other states should be looking at Montana as the model and not the other way around. Basically, we need a CEO for governor who understands business and is willing to buck the system to get the job done."
Those filing papers to raise money to run for governor but who don't appear to be actively campaigning yet are: Keith Winkler, a Billings Republican; Ron Vandevender, a Libertarian from Cascade; and Ronald Lassle of Helena, who didn't declare a party.
In the race for the U.S. House, two more Democrats, state Sen. Kim Gillan of Billings, and Missoula City Council member Dave Strohmaier are on the verge of announcing their candidacies.
They would join state Rep. Franke Wilmer, D-Bozeman, a Montana State University professor, who has already announced.
On the GOP side, Steve Daines, a Bozeman businessman, initially announced his candidacy for U.S. Senate in 2010, but dropped down to the House race earlier this year when Rep. Denny Rehberg announced he would challenge Democratic Sen. Jon Tester.
John Abarr, a former Ku Klux Klan organizer who lives in Great Falls, said he will run as a Republican for Congress. He lost a 2002 state House primary in which Republicans denounced him as a racist.
The only top tier race that appears set at this point is the blockbuster Senate battle between Tester, who is seeking a second six-year term, and Rehberg, who last fall won his sixth two-year term in the U.S. House.
As for the governor's race, Bohlinger said he's been asked by a number of people to consider running and is mulling it over.
"When first asked, my thought was, 'Golly, I'll be 76 when this term of office is up. At 76, one should consider retirement,'" Bohlinger said. "But the prompting continues. As I process this, I'm blessed with good health and a great deal of energy. I'd very much like to have a seat at the table where an agenda representing the common good could be advanced."
When Schweitzer, a Democrat, tapped Bohlinger, then a Republican state senator, to be his running mate in 2004, it raised hackles among in both parties. Later, some political analysts believed the bipartisan pairing was a major factor in their victory.
Bohlinger said he has spoken to both Republican and Democratic leaders about the idea of running for governor.
"I think there's probably greater support for my candidacy for being a Democrat as opposed to being a Republican," he said.
Bohlinger said he's considering running as an independent, but probably won't.
If he does run, Bohlinger said he'd agree to serve only one term, adding: "At 80, one should retire."
"I do have a passion for public policy, especially one advocating the public good," he said. "We know corporate America will be at the table. My focus would be on bringing forward proposals that would improve our education system. I have a great concern about the human services."
Essmann, the Billings businessman, property developer and lawyer who was appointed to replace Bohlinger in the Senate and who has been elected since, said he has been encouraged to take a look at the race.
"I do intend to visit with my friends and my supporters and my family to see what their thoughts are about the 2012 governor's race," he said. "You get pushed enough, you've got to think about it."
Essmann was in the news often in the 2011 Legislature as the sponsor of the new law to impose more regulations and restrict access to medical marijuana. It has been challenged in court as unconstitutional, although the state attorney general's office has argued it passes legal muster.
Borgquist is a former civilian and military prosecutor who was worked in estate planning for D.A. Davidson & Co. before forming a renewable energy business.
"I'm definitely looking at running," the Bozeman Democrat said. "I'm laying the groundwork talking to Montanans, getting myself organized. If I announce, I will do it in the fall. I think I bring a well-diversified record of experience and an independent and common sense approach to business, and I'd like to bring that to the office and to my state."
In the House race, Gillan, a Democratic senator who works as workforce development coordinator for Montana State University Billings, said she will announce her intentions in the coming weeks,
"I'm humbled by all the calls urging me to run," said Gillan, a state lawmaker since 1997. "It is clear that we need serious leadership in these tough times to bring Montana values to Congress and protect Montana's middle class, seniors and veterans."
Strohmaier, another Democrat, said he is interested in running for the House seat.
"You probably will be hearing from me in the relatively near future -- probably in the next week," he said in voice message last week.
He works as a historian for Historical Research Associates Inc. of Missoula and has served on the Missoula City Council since 2005.