Welcome to the next phase of the Iowa Senate race.

The first phase ended late Friday night when Rep. Steve King (R) King that he would not run, citing battles in Congress that require his undivided attention.

Rep. Steve King. (AP photo) Rep. Steve King. (AP photo)

King, a conservative icon in some segments of the party, would have been a heavy favorite to claim the GOP nomination, but the general election would have been a different story. King's outspoken brand of conservatism and knack for controversy would have made him a poor fit against the Democratic Party's near certain nominee Rep. Bruce Braley.

Are Republicans better off without King in the Senate mix? Yes. But that's a conditional yes -- conditional upon finding another candidate or candidates who can compete in the swing state for the moderate voters the congressman would have largely ceded as the nominee.

"It's almost like a play-in game to the NCAA Tournament," said Craig Robinson, a former state GOP political director who founded the Iowa Republican, a news Web site geared toward GOP readers. "These guys need to impress."

A trio of Republicans have been in touch with the National Republican Senatorial Committee and are now getting a closer look from a King-less party.

Joni Ernst, a state senator from southwestern Iowa has a resume that looks well tailored for a Senate campaign. She is a former county auditor and has served nearly two decades in the Army Reserves. She spent more than a year in Kuwait at the beginning of the Iraq War. Her challenge, though, would be competing in Eastern Iowa, a traditional Democratic-leaning area of the state. Her stock is high among Republican Gov. Terry Branstad's allies, Republicans say, and she's caught the attention of national Republicans.

There's also Secretary of State Matt Schultz, who is still in his political infancy at just 33 years of age. Then there is former U.S. Attorney Matt Whitaker, a Republican with a good relationship with activists but a lack of experience winning elected office.

King was only the latest Republican to pass on the Senate race. Others who have said no include Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds and state Agriculture Secretary Bill Northey.

And if Schultz, Whitaker and Ernst don't pan out, look for the name of another Republican who has declined to run to (re)surface: Rep. Tom Latham. Despite being viewed as a strong potential candidate, Latham ruled himself out in February. But if the Republican field fails to produce viable candidates who can raise money and stay on message, Latham's door will probably get a lot of knocks.

There is skepticism in GOP circles about whether Latham would reconsider, and Republicans monitoring the race generally agree that he wouldn't rush any decision to change his mind.

For his part, Latham's been having fun with the buzz that he might change his mind. “I am seriously reconsidering," read the subject line of an email he sent to supporters last Thursday. But the body of the email was just an invitation to his annual summer picnic, and began: “After experiencing today’s weather I am seriously reconsidering whether this truly is spring in Iowa." (Ha ha! We see what you did there, Congressman.)

What's clear is that Republicans now have an opportunity in Iowa that wouldn't have existed with King in the picture. Whether they take advantage or it goes to waste remains to be seen -- and could play a decisive role in determining whether or not GOPers can retake the Senate in 2014.

Updated at 4:07 p.m.