A big name like Bill Clinton or Democratic former Gov. Mario Cuomo could have an immediate impact for New York in the Senate while letting the large field of hopefuls duke it out in 2010, according to three Democratic Party advisers in New York and Washington who are close to the discussion with Paterson's inner circle on this issue.
Two others in the party confirmed that Paterson is still considering the caretaker option. The advisers spoke on the condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to comment.
"You could find a very senior person who could serve New York well" on an interim basis, said Gerald Benjamin, a political scientist and dean at the State University of New York at New Paltz. "Then you can say to Caroline Kennedy, `You know, you'd make a good senator. Run for it.' And you can tell everyone else that it's a level playing field."
Paterson has made it clear in recent days that he's getting annoyed by the constant jockeying by supporters of high-powered hopefuls including Kennedy, half a dozen members of Congress and state Attorney General Andrew Cuomo, son of the former governor.
The candidates - especially Kennedy - have made daily headlines as Paterson tries to focus on a fiscal crisis of historic proportions, his first budget proposal and preparations for his first full legislative session as governor. He took office last spring after disgraced Gov. Eliot Spitzer resigned.
The caretaker option was exercised last month by Delaware Gov. Ruth Ann Minner, who picked a former aide to Vice President-elect Joe Biden to succeed him in the Senate until a new senator is elected in 2010. By then, Biden's son, state Attorney General Beau Biden, will have returned from a tour in Iraq with the National Guard - just in time to run for his father's seat.
A week ago, Paterson said he favored appointing a senator soon after Clinton is confirmed to start building seniority, and he ruled out an interim placeholder. Under state law, there will be an election to fill the last two years of Hillary Clinton's term in 2010 and another for a full six-year term in 2012.
The process, however, wasn't supposed to be a big distraction.
Some of the other names circulating as possible caretakers among party operatives include the state's retired top jurist, Judith Kaye, and former Nebraska Sen. Bob Kerrey, now president of the New School in New York City.
Mario Cuomo and Kaye declined through spokesmen Tuesday to discuss the Senate seat; Bill Clinton, Kerrey and Paterson did not respond to questions Tuesday and Wednesday.
Lee Miringoff, director of the Marist College poll, said the caretaker option wouldn't surprise him. "To pick a caretaker is to say ... win it in the court of public opinion."
An interim appointment also could sidestep an internal struggle in New York's Democratic Party.
Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver - the longest-serving and most powerful legislative leader in the state - has reservations about Kennedy, and Paterson needs Silver if he wants to battle powerful labor interests to turn around the state's fiscal problems.
But Kennedy's supporters include New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a Democrat-turned-Republican-turned-independent who is another important ally for Paterson.
Meanwhile, the handicapping continues about the prospects of some of the lesser-known contenders.
Rep. Carolyn Maloney of New York City, who is known as a tenacious legislator, has been endorsed by three women's advocacy groups: the National Organization for Women, the Feminist Majority and the National Women's Political Caucus. Political observers say Paterson is under pressure to pick a woman because all the state's top leaders - except Clinton - are men.
In the political blog Connecting.the.dots, media critic and editor Robert Stein wrote Sunday that a caretaker would show that Paterson has the best interests of the state in mind during the fiscal crisis, while letting powerful political families fight it out in an election two years down the road.
Doug Muzzio, professor of politics at Baruch College, isn't convinced.
"If in fact you are looking to appoint a senator who can be an effective advocate for the people of the state, those two years you can learn a lot and to give that up is problematic."
But Muzzio also sees some benefit to Paterson in picking a caretaker.
"If he is feeling trapped about this Caroline Kennedy thing, this gives him, in a sense, a way out ... without naming someone else that would really anger the pro-Kennedy people," he said.