(AP) There is nothing like an up-for-grabs governor's office to pop the cork on pent-up political ambitions.
As Governor Jim Douglas, a Republican, coasted to his second, third, and fourth terms, Vermont Democrats had to dig to find people to challenge him.
His decision a year ago not to seek reelection set off a scramble that culminates tomorrow in a primary election, with five Democratic challengers seeking the party's nomination to face Republican Lieutenant Governor Brian Dubie Nov. 2.
"I can't recall as many qualified candidates for governor in my lifetime,'' said former Vermont congressman Richard Mallary, 81.
State Senator Susan Bartlett, Google executive and former legislator Matt Dunne, Secretary of State Deb Markowitz, Senator Doug Racine, and Senate President Pro Tem Peter Shumlin are all running in the Democratic primary.
Running in the Nov. 2 general election are Dubie, Progressive candidate Martha Abbott, and independents Cris Ericson, Dan Feliciano, Ben Mitchell, Em Peyton, and Dennis Steele.
The crowded field makes predicting the outcome impossible. Even turnout has become more of a guessing game.
Some analysts say they expect turnout to be unusually light, following the Legislature's decision this year to move the primary from the second Tuesday in September to the dog days of August, to give more time to print ballots and get them mailed to and back from military and other overseas voters before the general election.
But the competitive nature of the race, with the candidates vowing to mount strong get-out-the-vote efforts, may prove those predictions wrong.
In Brattleboro, Montpelier, and Burlington, clerks reported they were busier than expected handling ballots cast by early voters.
"It's been heavy. We've been very busy,'' said Montpelier City Clerk Charlotte Hoyt. She said interest in voting early was much stronger than before the primary in the last non-presidential election year, 2006.
From top to bottom, this year's primary ballot may be the most competitive Vermont voters have seen since six Republicans vied in 1980 for the chance to face US Senator Patrick Leahy.
"Having five qualified candidates shows Vermont Democrats have a deep talent pool and a deep bench,'' said Garrison Nelson, a political science professor at the University of Vermont. "Unfortunately, four of them are going to lose.''
Worse for the Democrats is the fact that they will have raised more than $2 million for the primary -- and spent more than $1.6 million of it, according to campaign finance report filings.
Dubie, the sole Republican in the race, had more than $445,000 in cash on hand as of last week, and the national Republican Governors Association is expected to support him, too.
"It's an unfortunate situation for the Vermont Democratic Party to have five qualified candidates who have flushed millions of dollars down the drain with no discernible effect at this point,'' Nelson said.
The Democrats have struggled to differentiate themselves from one another without attacking one another. They've participated in about 60 debates.
"They've been very careful not to attack each other very much,'' said Kathy Hoyt, a top aide to Howard Dean, the former governor. "They've mostly kept focused on Dubie.'' After the primary, "they've got to build everybody back into a unity approach for the general election.''