LOS ANGELES (AP) -- The presidential contest is dominating national headlines, but the toughest campaign in California might be two years away.
The race to replace Gov. Jerry Brown in 2018 is emerging as a potentially historic and crowded competition that could bring the state its first Asian governor, the first Hispanic in modern times or, maybe, the first woman to hold the job.
Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom started banking cash more than a year ago in advance of a run, and state Treasurer John Chiang sounds like he's getting in. Former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa is expected to become a candidate shortly, after flirting with a possible run for years.
"I have a lot of service left in me," Villaraigosa told a group of Democrats at the party's state convention last month, in what appeared to be a slightly muffled reference to his intentions.
There's been no announcement by Villaraigosa but "I fully expect he's going to run for governor," said Democratic strategist Roger Salazar, who is close to the former mayor.
The list is likely to get longer. Former eBay executive and state controller Steve Westly is giving it a close look, and billionaire climate activist Tom Steyer is considering a run. The incumbent mayor in Los Angeles, Eric Garcetti, is gearing up for a re-election campaign next year but would also be on a list of possible contenders.
Democrats will be favored to hold the seat in a state where the party controls every statewide office, but some familiar Republican names have also circulated as potential candidates, including San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer and Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin, who was a candidate for state controller in 2014.
The race is taking shape at a time when the state economy has gradually improved but millions of Californians are struggling in poverty or lower-wage jobs. Drivers contend with crumbling, congested roads and freeways. The state's water supply remains shaky. Governments are saddled with soaring pension and employee health care costs.
The strong interest in the governor's race is partly the result of California's election rules, known to critics as the "jungle primary," which sets the stage for unpredictable outcomes. Only two candidates advance to a November runoff, the top vote-getters, and voters can select any candidate, regardless of party.
The unusual, free-for-all rules put a lot of voters in play — Democrats can seek Republican votes, and vice versa, while a large group of independent voters is up for grabs. With a large field slicing up the vote, that opens up a lot of paths for candidates that wouldn't exist when primary elections were closed for either Democrats or Republicans.
There are "so many different candidates who have different constituencies," noted Sam Rodriguez, a former state Democratic Party strategist, referring to the potential field and its geographic, demographic and political divisions.
For example, Newsom is rooted in the San Francisco area, where he was once mayor. Villaraigosa became the first Hispanic mayor in Los Angeles in over a century. Chiang, the son of immigrants from Taiwan, represents a point of pride in the Asian community.
"When you don't have a closed, Democratic Party primary, you have to extend your constituency," Rodriguez said. The potential candidates must "make decisions fairly early about running for governor, so that they have more time to meet with voters who may not have considered them before."
For the two former mayors, Villaraigosa's expected entry into the race would set up a north-south rivalry with Newsom, with the state's vast interior heartland a key battleground. Both have made trips to the area in recent months, highlighting its importance.
Villaraigosa left office in 2013 after two up-and-down terms. He can fairly claim successes, including bulking up the police department and seeding a transit-building boom, but was also faulted for sometimes promising more than he delivered, including a school takeover plan that flopped.
The son of a Mexican immigrant, the high-school dropout turned around his life and eventually became speaker of the California Assembly, city councilman and in 2005, mayor.
Now in private business and consulting, Villaraigosa has been helping Hillary Clinton raise money — he was a national co-chair for her 2008 presidential campaign. He considered running for U.S. Senate this year, but declined.
His varied business affairs are likely to become a point of scrutiny if he enters the race. Among them: he has been an adviser to Herbalife, the seller of supplements and weight-loss products currently under federal investigation as a potential pyramid scheme. Herbalife has defended its business practices.