SACRAMENTO — For years he had been the state Capitol's perennial governor wannabe, the Democrat with the big handshake and reliable ambition and decades of political seasoning.
But now Lt. Gov. John Garamendi appears poised to leave Sacramento.
Garamendi, at 64 a man who has spent more than half his life in politics, is heavily favored to win a Bay Area congressional seat in a special election Tuesday. If the votes fall as expected in a district where Democrats have an 18-point registration edge over Republicans, Garamendi will relinquish his post as the state's second-in-command, a job with a big title but few real-world responsibilities.
His departure could set up yet another showdown between Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who would nominate a new lieutenant governor, and a Democrat-dominated Legislature that is unlikely to confirm anyone with ambition to run statewide next year.
For Garamendi, these are times to reminisce and get ready for a possible trip to Washington, where he could potentially cast a vote next week in the roiling healthcare debate.
"I have had an absolutely marvelous life . . . no regrets at all," he said in his office across from the governor's suite. "And maybe in four or five days, I'll be starting a new career."
For players in California's Capitol, it is time to do some political calculus, as Democratic leaders prepare for a possible joust with Schwarzenegger over a successor.
Aaron McLear, the governor's spokesman, said Schwarzenegger is not focusing on a potential replacement until there is a vacancy.
But names being bandied about in the statehouse include Democrat Bob Hertzberg, a former Assembly speaker now shepherding the good-government group California Forward. Republicans being mentioned include former Los Angeles Mayor and state Education Secretary Richard Riordan, state Sen. Abel Maldonado of Santa Maria -- who broke from GOP ranks this year to push budget deals to Schwarzenegger's desk -- and current gubernatorial candidate Tom Campbell.
Some pundits speculate that Schwarzenegger will at least make a bow to his party by nominating a Republican, even though legislative Democrats would probably block it, then settle for a choice such as Hertzberg, a Schwarzenegger friend.
Dan Schnur, executive director of USC's Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics, said the "only safe bet" is that a Garamendi successor would be someone seen as having "a fairly limited political future."
Hertzberg said in an interview that he would accept the job only if it would help his current political cause: pushing through changes to California government. "I have heard the scuttlebutt, but I don't want to speculate," he said.
Others say Hertzberg has asked political friends to lobby Schwarzenegger on his behalf and would welcome a return to Sacramento.
Garamendi came to the lieutenant governor's office in 2006 determined not to follow in the footsteps of many predecessors, who won election and promptly disappeared from sight. Since the state's birth in 1850, only three lieutenant governors have managed to parlay the post into election to the governor's office. The last, Gray Davis, was recalled and replaced by Schwarzenegger.
Mostly, the job has been a springboard to nowhere. Since 1900, only five former California lieutenant governors have been elected to Congress.
Garamendi's experience as No. 2 is a different sort of cautionary tale. He was elected in 2006 after earning good marks for 16 years in the Legislature, a stint with the Clinton administration and two terms as state insurance commissioner.
Despite the long political resume, Garamendi struggled like many before him to find a sense of purpose in the lieutenant governor's corner office. He eventually gained traction on the issues he likes best, becoming a foil to Schwarzenegger on offshore oil drilling and coastal protection, cuts in the higher education budget and slashed social programs during this year's budget battles.
"We did a lot of good work out of here," he said.
His frequent criticisms earned payback, as Schwarzenegger cut the lieutenant governor's budget by 62% amid California's financial crisis. Garamendi's staff of 21 was reduced by more than half.
Ever ambitious, Garamendi began a run for governor last year. From the beginning, he trailed in the polls and in fundraising. When Rep. Ellen Tauscher resigned to join the Obama administration and her seat opened up, Garamendi jumped at the chance to represent the district, which straddles the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta.
With victory likely, he talks of old times and what's ahead.
He remembers casting one of the votes in the mid-1970s that barely saved the Capitol from being demolished in favor of twin glass towers. In 1978, he served on the legislative committee that in less than three weeks fashioned a new state funding system after voters approved Proposition 13 to hold down property taxes.
That sort of purpose seems lacking in the statehouse he's likely to leave, he said. He blames the demise of collegiality, the lack of experience and the rise of hyper-partisanship.
But "never look back," he said. "I'm very excited about the prospect of spending the next 20 years in Congress."