"You don't have your mind absolutely made up" going into the conclave, Cardinal Justin Rigali, the former archbishop of Philadelphia who participated in the 2005 conclave that elected Benedict XVI, told the Associated Press last week. "You have your impressions."
Officially, the cardinals gathered in Rome aren't talking, so the names come from Vaticanisti, journalists who regularly cover the Vatican and lay claim to inside sources. Cardinal Timothy Dolan, 63, of New York, a gregarious extrovert whose homilies are soul-stirring, is reportedly backed by some powerful Italians who long for a return to the style of Pope John Paul II. Boston's Cardinal Sean O'Malley, a Capuchin who preaches well in five languages and cleaned up after sex-abuse disasters in three dioceses, has media interest though it's not clear if he has a voting bloc.
John Allen of the National Catholic Reporter has proposed that if the cardinals are open to an American, Cardinal Donald Wuerl, archbishop of Washington, best fits the criteria that many have indicated they want.
In on-and-off the record interviews prior to the pre-conclave media blackout, various cardinals described a tangibly holy evangelist with international appeal and enough of a spine to clean up a bureaucratic nightmare in the Vatican.
According to numerous accounts, Cardinal Angelo Scola, 71, of Milan; Cardinal Odilo Pedro Scherer, 63, of Sao Paulo, Brazil; and Cardinal Marc Ouellet, 68, a Canadian who was most recently head of the Vatican's Congregation for Bishops, all have support, but nothing close to the 77 votes required for an election by two-thirds of the 115 voting cardinals.
The Italian newspaper La Stampa estimates that Scola, an intellectual known for dialogue with Muslims, has 35 to 40 votes, primarily from Europe and some from the United States. But the Philadelphia-based Vaticanisto Rocco Palmo, who is on the speed-dial of some cardinals, says Italian cardinals are wary of him because of his ties to Communion and Liberation, an Italian Catholic movement with political overtones. He isn't seen as particularly dynamic but is an architect of the "new evangelization" that Pope Benedict XVI sought to bring to the secularized West.
Scherer is also said to suffer from a charisma deficit - translations of his sermons are bland. He is, according to Italian Vaticanisti, the candidate of the old guard in the Vatican bureaucracy, where he once worked. La Stampa estimates that he has 25 votes. But backing from the old guard could alienate many cardinals who see the Vatican bureaucracy as inept and pastorally tone-deaf.
Ouellet, a scripture scholar, is usually named as the third-leading contender, though the Italian newspaper La Repubblica considers the two early leaders to be Scola and Dolan.
What Scola, Scherer and Ouellet lack in personal magnetism, Dolan supplies several times over.
The Rev. James Farnan, a pastor in Beaver County, Pa., attended seminary at Rome's North American College in the 1990s, when then-Msgr. Dolan was the rector. He was such a brilliant teacher and preacher that students were eager to attend his seminars.
"They were entertaining, stuffed with content and inspiring. He would take the ethereal and make it practical, without losing its lofty nature," Farnan said.
But the outgoing qualities that make him so appealing to Americans may be off-putting to those of other cultures who consider Americans brash.
Allen believes that Wuerl may be the most qualified American, with a decade of Vatican experience, a history of successfully confronting its bureaucrats and a gift for building consensus. But he may be more likely a kingmaker than a king in the conclave.
As the conclave begins, explore our visual guide to choosing a pope at www.philly.com/popedecision
This article contains information from the Associated Press.