The long campaign is over.  And so a new one begins: the race to succeed Arnold Schwarzenegger as governor of California.

A crop of would-be candidates is already preparing -- some openly, others behind the scenes -- with two years until the state's next big election.

One, Lt. Gov. John Garamendi, is a rancher; at least one, former EBay chief Meg Whitman, is a billionaire; a third, San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom, is known across the nation as a champion of same-sex marriage.

Several have run and lost for governor before, and one, Atty. Gen. Jerry Brown, has been governor already. Only one thing seems certain: The next governor of California will not be a movie star.

Barring a dramatic turnaround, he or she will inherit the same challenge that Schwarzenegger, a Republican, vowed to conquer in the recall election of 2003: controlling a state budget that is perennially off-kilter, reining in borrowing and managing the pull-and-push of taxes and spending.

"Have we made any progress at all in five or six years?" asked Steve Poizner, the state's Republican insurance commissioner, sitting outside a Borders bookstore in his hometown of Los Gatos late last month.

"No! I mean, I can't believe we're back to the same place we were . . . with massive budget deficits, and now we have a declining economy and jobs are leaving at an even more rapid clip."

The wild card is Sen. Dianne Feinstein, 75, widely considered to be the state's most prominent Democrat, who friends say is debating whether to enter the race or remain an influential figure in Washington.

She would vault to the head of the field, analysts say, but may be reluctant to leave the Senate with her party newly dominant in favor of a campaign to run a deficit-plagued state and deal with a polarized Legislature.

"The question she will have to resolve for herself is whether she wants to give that very powerful, very important job up," said Darry Sragow, a Democratic strategist in Los Angeles.

Feinstein, who declined to be interviewed, indicated her interest to the state's political class by dipping a toe into state issues this fall. Along with Whitman and Brown, she helped defeat Proposition 5, which would have diverted drug offenders from prison into treatment.

She campaigned unsuccessfully against Proposition 8, the initiative to outlaw same-sex marriage. But it is Newsom, her fellow San Franciscan and Democrat, who could be most hampered in more conservative parts of the state by his close identification with the losing side of that initiative.

"It characterizes him as a San Francisco liberal," said Allan Hoffenblum, a Republican political strategist.

Newsom, 41, youthful and dynamic, helped trigger the debate over same-sex marriage in 2004 when he authorized marriage licenses for homosexual couples.

He presided over gay and lesbian weddings and gave the speech that became notorious when backers of Proposition 8 ran a TV ad with a video of a wild-eyed Newsom crowing that there would be gay marriages "whether you like it or not."

Speaking to reporters on the day after the election, Newsom said he was not concerned about the issue's potential effect on his career.

"It's trivial and irrelevant," the mayor said. "It was never about me. It's not about politicians. This is about people. It's about real human beings."

Larry Gerston, a professor of political science at San Jose State University, agreed that video of Newsom's "Howard Dean moment" could hurt him in a general election, but he said the mayor's same-sex marriage stand might boost him in a Democratic primary.

"It could even be a badge of honor," Gerston said.