ATLANTA - When Georgia voters cast their ballots in a couple of weeks for lieutenant governor, they might not be choosing someone just to look after the Senate and fill in should something happen to the next governor.
They could be choosing a successor.
Since the post was created more than 50 years ago, most of Georgia's lieutenant governors have run for the top office when their party's slot on the ballot opened up. Witness Lt. Gov. Mark Taylor, currently battling Secretary of State Cathy Cox for the Democratic nod to take on Gov. Sonny Perdue, a Republican, in the fall.
"I think virtually all of them have run or at least toyed with running," said Charles Bullock, a political science professor at the University of Georgia.
One notable exception was Mr. Taylor's predecessor, Pierre Howard, who bowed out of the 1998 governor's race before the primary. But Mr. Bullock pointed out that even Mr. Howard had given signs he was considering a run.
Meanwhile, the question of running for governor could soon take center stage in this year's race for lieutenant governor. To a degree, it already has.
Some Democrats are pushing the theory that former Christian Coalition head Ralph Reed is running for the office as the first step of a plan that will lead ultimately to a presidential run, perhaps stopping at the Governor's Mansion along the way.
Former state Sen. Greg Hecht, D-Jonesboro, has been among the most aggressive in making that case. He said in a recent interview that he believes the Republican, who faces Sen. Casey Cagle of Chestnut Mountain in the GOP primary, "is just using this as a steppingstone."
Mr. Reed refuses to rule in or out the idea that the office is a springboard for him. But he plays down any notion that he's running for lieutenant governor solely to further his political ambitions.
"I've been in politics long enough to know that you don't look past one election to the next," he said. But Mr. Reed also noted that, if he is elected and does the job well, "that will open the door to other opportunities to serve."
And, for his part, even Mr. Hecht won't eschew a future bid for higher office.
"Right now, I want to be the best lieutenant governor that the state's ever had. ... That question (of higher office) will answer itself later on in my legislative career," he said.
First, he would have to get past Sen. Steen Miles, of Decatur; former Human Resources Commissioner Jim Martin, of Atlanta; Griffin Lotson; and Rufus Terrill in the Democratic primary, and then win the general election.
But even the eventual winner this year is far from a shoo-in should he or she decide to run for governor.
In the last 25 years, only one governor out of four, Zell Miller, has come from the lower office.
"No guarantees," Mr. Bullock said. "But you're closer to it than anything else."