Less than a week after San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom exited the race, the chattering class is putting up the names of Democrats who could maybe/possibly/hopefully jump into the race to challenge Attorney General Jerry Brown, who some party leaders quietly worry might be a bit too old and shopworn to win in November.

Former San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown suggested Southern California Rep. Jane Harman and California first lady Maria Shriver as possible candidates. Bill Whalen, a former aide to Republican Gov. Pete Wilson, threw the name of John Doerr, a Silicon Valley venture capitalist, into the mix. The Los Angeles Times is taking an unscientific poll about whether Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa should get back in the race. Veteran Democratic operative Steve Maviglio has put together his own list, adding in former Assembly Speaker Bob Hertzberg, state Treasurer Bill Lockyer, Orange County Rep. Loretta Sanchez, who already has a campaign committee established, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who hasn’t ruled out a run, and, what the hell, even Lt. Gov. John Garamendi, who was elected to Congress last night.

Now it’s true that many of those listed have said that no way, no how are they running for governor. But it was just a week or so ago that Newsom was telling anyone who would listen that it was “absurd” to think he’d get out of the governor’s race.

Still, though, there’s a reason Brown is the lone Democrat currently, though unofficially, running for the top office in the big, blue state of California.

Newsom said he left the race because his “young family and responsibilities at City Hall” prevented him from giving his campaign the time it deserved. Last June, when Villaraigosa bailed out, the reason he gave was that “I can’t leave the city in the middle of a crisis.”

While most everyone is willing to grant politicians the cover they need to make a dignified exit from a losing race, that doesn’t mean you actually have to believe them. Is there anyone out there who really thinks that Newsom or Villaraigosa wouldn’t have found a way to make their campaigns co-exist with their other responsibilities if they sported the poll numbers – and campaign bankbook – that Brown has?

Two weeks ago, in a story that didn’t get the statewide play it should have, Jack O’Connell, the state superintendent of public instruction, announced he would retire from politics when his term ends in 2011.

O’Connell, who was first elected to the state Legislature in 1982, had made no secret of his desire to be governor. At 58, the former teacher was popular and respected on both sides of the aisle. He had better than $650,000 in the bank, a record of success in statewide campaigns and a great relationship with the state’s teachers’ unions, potential kingmakers in Democratic politics.

But after looking at the race, O’Connell decided “the stars were not aligned” for a run for governor in 2010. Brown’s name ID and fund-raising prowess was just too big an obstacle.

Kenneth Burt, veteran political director of the California Federation of Teachers, estimated it would take as much as $40 million in campaign spending to match Brown’s name recognition among California voters. Without the ability to write personal checks that include six or seven zeros (See: Whitman, Meg, and Poizner, Steve), that’s not going to happen.

Politicians are inveterate optimists, but all successful politicians temper that optimism with the realism born of experience. And experience tells them that unless Brown stumbles, there’s not going to be a lot of running room in the Democratic primary.

If Brown does make a mistake, it won’t be because of his frantic campaigning. At a political breakfast in San Francisco Tuesday, he continued his polite fiction by insisting that he’s not a formal candidate for governor and that “there’s no need to get going too soon.”

But Tom Campbell, a GOP candidate for governor, was at the same breakfast and entertained the crowd with a list of the top 25 “whoppers” typically used by California candidates.

Number 25 on that list of, ah, questionable political statements was that “you can raise $7 million dollars without really deciding to run for governor.”

Actually, if you’re talking about Brown, it’s well over $8 million and counting, but you get the point.

John Wildermuth is a longtime writer on California politics.