WASHINGTON-Haven’t recovered yet from the caustic and costly 2010 Senate contest? Get ready, because the next round is taking shape, fast and furious.

There may be another 656 days before voters choose a successor to Sen. Joseph Lieberman, who today announced his decision to retire instead of run for a 5th term. But the slate of possible contenders for Lieberman’s seat aren’t likely to waste much time before they start raising money, setting up a campaign operation, and hitting the trail.

One Democrat, former Secretary of the State Susan Bysiewicz, is already in. Another, Rep. Christopher Murphy, D-5th District, told Democrats he will join the fray Thursday.

“Things are moving fast,” a third potential candidate, Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, said Wednesday. “We’re still huddling.”

For their part, Republican operatives in Washington didn’t wait for the official word from Lieberman before blasting the Democratic bench-in-waiting–and licking their chops at the possibility of a bitterly-fought primary.

“First of all, a contentious primary among the Democrats ultimately only helps the Republicans,” said Brian Walsh, a spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee. “Blumenthal had a clear field last year and entered the race with a 30 point lead, and the national Democrats still had to spend $2 million to save him.”

Democrat Richard Blumenthal, who won the 2010 Senate race against Republican Linda McMahon, did get significant help from Washington, with the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee pouring coveted campaign cash into his race in the closing weeks. But Blumenthal ended up winning comfortably, in the face of McMahon’s $50 million self-funded campaign operation and its torrent of TV ads and glossy mailings.

“A lot of strange things could happen in the Connecticut Senate race this year, but one that’s not likely is electing a Republican,” quipped Eric Schultz, the DSCC spokesman. “Their most prominent candidate spent over $50 million and ended her campaign with a 43-50 percent favorability rating.”

If some of these lines sound familiar, it’s no wonder. In the 2012 contest, the biggest unknown on the GOP side is whether McMahon, the former CEO of World Wrestling Entertainment, will rev up another Senate bid–and how much she’ll spend if she opts for Round 2.

McMahon posted a Facebook message today stirring the speculation. After praising Lieberman for “bringing a strong, independent and principled voice to Washington,” McMahon wrote: “Many people have asked me what my plans are. While running for the U.S. Senate in 2012 remains an option for me, I will spend the next few months focusing on how I can best serve the people of Connecticut.”

Political observers say she could be a formidable force.

“I have to say that while she got soundly beat, she ran an awfully good race, especially for a beginner,” said Jennifer Duffy, a senior editor at the Cook Political Report, a nonpartisan group that analyzes national campaigns. “I think she’s got room” to build on her 2010 performance.

All the same, Duffy noted that as soon as Lieberman’s remarks were over, she switched her ranking of the nascent Connecticut Senate race from “lean independent” to “likely Democratic.”

“This is good news for Democrats on a whole bunch of levels,” Duffy said of Lieberman’s decision to bow out.

For Republicans, “their first opponent in this race is just the Democratic nature of the state,” Duffy said, noting that Connecticut proved a bulwark against last year’s wave of GOP victories.

“Is that going to be different in 2012, a presidential election year?” she asked. “I doubt it.”

Plus, she said, if Lieberman had run as an independent, Democrats would have “had to play a sort of zone defense” against him and the GOP nominee in a messy three-way race. “It would have been a lot dicier,” Duffy said.

Now, the Democrats have a clearer path and their field appears strong.

Chris Healy, chairman of the Connecticut Republican Party, said the GOP bench is equally solid, including McMahon, businessman and unsuccessful Republican gubernatorial candidate Tom Foley, and ex-Rep. Rob Simmons. Healy noted that all have run strong statewide campaigns and are well known.

“I do think Republicans will end up with a good candidate, even thought this is an uphill race for them,” Duffy concurred. “This has a long way to go.”

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