Who in the world would want to be lieutenant governor of Virginia?

Apparently not John W. Marshall, the son of legendary Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. The younger Marshall, a former state police officer, is Gov. Mark R. Warner's (D) public safety secretary.

Marshall, a Democrat, toyed with the idea in the summer, letting it be known that he was considering a bid for the state's second-highest office. For someone who has never held an elected position, it could have been a springboard to the big job.

But Marshall has bowed out. In a statement, he cited the interests of his family and his desire to continue helping Warner accomplish more "in the area of public safety."

His departure robs the Democratic Party of what could have been a powerful new voice in state politics, and one that might have helped Lt. Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) win the governorship in 2005.

Marshall's biography is compelling, and it draws strength from both sides of the political aisle. As Thurgood Marshall's son, he claims the mantle of a fighter for civil rights on behalf of blacks and other minorities. That message has high appeal for Virginia Democrats.

As a former police officer, Marshall is a different kind of fighter. He's tough on crime, drunk drivers and, in his current job, snipers and terrorists. That resume appeals to Republicans and independents.

A few skeptics in the Democratic Party, particularly those supporting someone else for lieutenant governor, had wondered whether Marshall would start without an established support base. Most senior party officials had been crossing their fingers that Marshall would run, thinking that a Kaine-Marshall ticket would be hard to beat.

Marshall's statement ended with a teaser worthy of Hollywood. "I very much appreciate the encouragement to run and the pledges of support I have received from so many people across the Commonwealth," he wrote. "I may very well be calling upon them in the future."

The job of Virginia lieutenant governor is limited. The lieutenant governor presides over the state Senate a couple of months each year and casts the deciding vote in a tie. Still, the office has often been used as a political launching pad.

Former U.S. senator Charles S. Robb began his political career with a successful run for lieutenant governor in 1977, and L. Douglas Wilder served four years in the job during the 1980s before becoming governor.

Whomever Democrats pick will face one of several Republicans vying for that party's nomination, including Prince William Board of County Supervisors Chairman Sean T. Connaughton, Del. Joe T. May of Loudoun and state Sen. Bill Bolling of Hanover. Attorney General Jerry W. Kilgore (R) is a sure bet to be on top of the Republican ticket next year.

But for now, it seems, Democrats will choose from a list of hopefuls who have thrown their hats into the ring: former state senator Leslie L. Byrne, Del. J. Chapman Petersen of Fairfax, Del. Viola O. Baskerville of Richmond and state Sen. Phillip P. Puckett of Russell.

Byrne -- a former delegate and state senator from Fairfax and a one-term member of Congress -- is the most experienced. As a Northern Virginian, she could help Kaine, who is from Richmond, have appeal in that region. She is virtually unknown in the rest of Virginia, where her decidedly liberal record might not play well.

Petersen, a former Fairfax City Council member, has been in the House of Delegates for a short time. He has followed a more conservative path there and is known as a tireless campaigner. He'll have to do a lot of campaigning to introduce himself outside tiny Fairfax City.

Baskerville, who is black, is a veteran lawmaker who could help Kaine win the African American vote. She is also a former member of the Richmond City Council, which Kaine led as mayor, and parties usually strive for more geographic diversity on their statewide tickets.

Puckett, a two-term state senator, hails from southern, rural Virginia. It would be a plus for Democrats to have a candidate from what traditionally has been a Republican stronghold. But he's a virtual unknown in the rest of the state, where most voters live.

Some Democrats who were privately pushing for Marshall say they hope to see other names emerge soon.

James W. Dyke Jr., a prominent Fairfax lawyer and lobbyist who served as education secretary under Wilder, said that several Democrats have approached him to run for lieutenant governor.

"Obviously it's something that has crossed my radar screen," said Dyke, who has made no secret of his desire to hold statewide office.

If he runs, he must decide soon. As soon as the Nov. 2 presidential election ends, the race for the Statehouse begins.

JOHN W. MARSHALL