(Left to right) Jackson Jr., Duckworth, Hynes

In presidential politics it’s never too early to ask, “What if?” Consider, then: what if Barack Obama makes it to the White House? Who will become Illinois’ junior senator? Under state law, Governor Blagojevich will name Obama’s successor, who will serve out the remaining two years of the term and then, in 2010, could run for a full term. We talked to some political insiders and came up with a list of contenders:

Blagojevich could play it safe and choose somebody with national political star power-say, former commerce secretary Bill Daley, or U.S. Rep. Rahm Emanuel, who won the guv’s old congressional seat (with Blagojevich’s backing) and is currently the fourth-ranking Dem in the House. Look out, also, for U.S. Rep. Luis Gutierrez, a longtime Blagojevich ally who contributed $50,000 to his re-election’s coffers.

Some handicappers bet on one of the state officers, perhaps comptroller Dan Hynes, the runner-up to Obama in the 2004 primary, or maybe Blagojevich’s running mate, lieutenant governor Pat Quinn, who unsuccessfully challenged Dick Durbin for his Senate seat in 1996. Of all the statewide contenders, Hynes, the Dems’ machine-backed choice in 2004, seems most likely to get the call.

Then there are the Jesses: Illinois secretary of state Jesse White and U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., either of whom would keep Obama’s seat in the hands of an African American. Look also for tomorrow’s potential rising stars, such as Tammy Duckworth, an Iraq war amputee who narrowly lost her 2006 congressional bid but was the guv’s pick to head the state’s veterans’ office. Steve Rhodes, of the online political blog The Beachwood Reporter, is picking another sleeper: Kwame Raoul, a former prosecutor who was appointed to Obama’s vacated state senate seat. “Maybe there’s kind of a pipeline there,” says Rhodes.

State senator Carol Ronen, a close Blagojevich confidante, likes U.S. Rep. Jan Schakowsky: “She’s a great progressive, she’s extremely popular, and her agenda is very similar to the governor’s.” What about Blagojevich’s adversary, Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan? No way, says Ronen. But Jennifer Duffy, an analyst with the Cook Political Report, has another take: “If someone’s a problem, aren’t they less of a problem half a country away?” Ditto that, then, for Madigan’s daughter, Lisa, whose AG office has been investigating the guv for allegedly trading state jobs for campaign cash. Adds Duffy: “If I believed in conspiracies, maybe Blagojevich would appoint someone to take care of the seat for him”-his wife, Patti, perhaps?-in case he wanted to continue his political career back in the Beltway. Come to think of it, the guv would fit perfectly in the Senate’s Funny Haircut Club.

Photography: (Jackson) AP photo/Matthew Cavanaugh; (Duckworth) Dimitrios Kambouris/Wireimage.com; (Hynes) AP photo/Seth Perlman