This morning’s Rocky Mountain News has an interesting rundown of the potential candidates in the 2006 Colorado governor’s race, the theme being that the race is wide open right now.

On the Democratic side, the News makes the race look more wide open than it probably is in reality. At this stage, U.S. Rep. Mark Udall of Eldorado Springs has to be considered the clear frontrunner. He pleased party bigwigs by dropping out of the Senate race in favor of Ken Salazar earlier this year, and his years of service in Congress have given rank and file Democrats lots of reasons to be confident in him.

Of the potential Democratic primary challengers to Udall identified in the News article, Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper would be the strongest due to his high name recognition and unusual popularity outside of the Denver city limits.

Interestingly, the News identifies U.S. Rep. Bob Beauprez of Arvada as the leading Republican candidate. Beauprez has won two elections now as a Republican in the tossup 7th Congressional District, and although one might chalk up his most recent victory to nonstop negative attacks on his opponent instead of on his own merits, that’s one proven way to win.

A Beauprez campaign would be helped, at least in the primary, by the fact that two of his possible major opponents have baggage. Treasurer Mike Coffman has been stung by a 6-1 Colorado Supreme Court decision finding he broke campaign laws by using state resources to lobby against Amendment 23 in 2000. Former U.S. Rep. Scott McInnis of Grand Junction is under fire for paying his wife $3,000 a month from campaign funds to be his “campaign manager” in 2004, a year in which he was not running for office.

The other major Republican contender, Lt. Governor Jane Norton, suffers from very low name recognition. She would benefit greatly if Governor Owens were to step down early to go to Washington, but the new Bush cabinet positions are being filled rapidly and it does not look likely that Owens will be turning over the keys to the governor’s mansion to Norton.

A couple of possible candidates did not make the News‘ list but could end up as serious contenders. On the Democratic side, former Lt. Governor Gail Schoettler lost to Bill Owens by a hair in 1998. She may be ready for another shot.

Among Republicans, former U.S. Rep. Bob Schaffer of Fort Collins, who lost to Pete Coors in the Senate primary this year, could be the standardbearer for the religious right in the gubernatorial campaign. That GOP faction has reason to feel slighted after Coors muscled Schaffer aside, then lost the Senate race to Ken Salazar. A Schaffer campaign could be a way for them to re-establish themselves as a force to be reckoned with in Colorado politics.