On Tuesday, even before 24 hours had elapsed since Washington State Republican Party Chair Kirby Wilbur’s announcement that he was stepping down immediately to begin a full-time position with the Young America’s Foundation in Washington, D.C., party activists and insiders were buzzing to discover the names of likely candidates who might run to replace him.

If names were snowflakes, it would not be an overstatement to say that chatter over online forums and email quickly became a flurry. According to a well-informed source, 17 people have expressed interest in running for WSRP chair so far.

We fully expect that number to go down quickly, not up, particularly if the tantalizing prospect of luring one of the two recent Republican candidates for governor back to shepherd the party through a tricky time were to become reality. All is quiet in those camps on the issue, for now.

Still, though no one has officially declared an intent to run, a couple of figures have taken half-steps forward to signal definite interest – interim WSRP Chair Luanne Van Werven of Whatcom County and former news anchor and King County Executive candidate Susan Hutchison.

Van Werven responded Tuesday evening to questions about rumors of her interest in retaining the role she has stepped into after Wilbur’s quick departure. Her answer, in the language of politics, was as clear an upside-maybe as you’re going to get.

“I believe the continuity and stability of the WSRP is of critical importance. If standing for permanent chair is in the best interest of the state party then I am prepared to do that,” Van Werven wrote to us.

Earlier Tuesday, Hutchison gave her own clear statement to Jim Brunner of The Seattle Times on whether she was interested in leading the state GOP. Hutchison left the door wide open for speculation. From The Seattle Times:

“I think it’s an exciting job, and I think there is a lot to be done, and it requires someone who is dynamic, understands the territory and the state and can raise money and bring people together,” Hutchison said. Asked whether those were qualities she possesses, Hutchison replied: “I think they are.”

When hats are ultimately tossed into the ring and the WSRP state committee’s 117 members vote sometime within the next 90 days to elect a new permanent chair, one of the key questions candidates will have to answer is, “How much money can you raise?”

This year, Republicans hope to provide a tailwind in support of state Rep. Jan Angel who is working hard to unseat recently appointed Democratic incumbent state Sen. Nathan Schlicher in the 26th Legislative District.

Next year, Republicans will attempt to extend a recent trend of picking up seats in both houses of the state Legislature and possibly to flip a congressional seat in what promises to be a tricky midterm election.