HELENA – Another day passed Thursday with no official announcement from the White House that President Barack Obama was appointing U.S. Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., as ambassador to China.

There was no word from the White House or Baucus about the appointment.

As a result, Gov. Steve Bullock, who would appoint the senator to succeed Baucus once Baucus is confirmed and resigns, also had no comment.

“Since there is no vacancy, we won’t be commenting,” Bullock spokesman Kevin O’Brien said.

But there was plenty of discussion on the Senate appointment front, even though no vacancy exists yet.

Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., said he believes Baucus will do “a great job as ambassador to China.”

“He will open jobs to Montana that no one else could,” Tester said in an interview. “Are we going to miss him in the Senate? Damn right we will. But he only had a year left in his term.”

As to who might replace Baucus in the Senate, Tester said that’s up to Bullock.

“Steve will make that decision,” Tester said. “He’s a thoughtful guy, and he’ll send me someone I can work with.”

The Associated Press reported that Lt. Gov. John Walsh, already a Democratic candidate for the Senate in 2014, could benefit from the Baucus resignation, or not.

“If Montana’s Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock appoints Walsh to fill the Baucus seat, as widely expected, that would give the Democratic candidates close to 10 months in the job and higher visibility against the likely Republican candidate, first-term Rep. Steve Daines,” an Associated Press story from Washington said.

On the other hand, the AP said, Walsh “no longer would be able to run as a Washington outsider and would develop a voting record that could come under attack.”

The Hill, a Washington publication, reported that Jim Messina, manager of Obama’s successful 2012 re-election campaign and a University of Montana graduate, “fielded calls from high-level officials in Montana asking if he would serve as a placeholder for Baucus.”

“Messina could also be an intriguing candidate, however, given his deep connections with state or national political leaders,” the Hill said. “Messina served as chief of staff for Baucus before joining Obama’s team and was influential in Obama’s decision to nominate Baucus as an envoy to China.”

Messina did not respond to an inquiry from the Missoulian State Bureau.

Meanwhile, the national Progressive Change Campaign Committee launched a petition drive to urge Bullock to appoint “a strong progressive” to serve out Baucus’ term. It suggested former Gov. Brian Schweitzer, former U.S. Rep. Pat Williams or former state Senate Majority Leader Carol Williams as possibilities.

The online petition is at http://bit.ly/1bTLyz2.

The group also will actively oppose Messina, the PCCC’s Matt Wall said.

The same committee ran a petition drive and had town meetings in a failed attempt to urge Schweitzer to run for the Senate seat. Schweitzer looked at the possibility, but then decided in mid-July not to make the Senate run.

In another development, Melinda Gopher, a Missoula writer and Native American activist, said she would switch her candidacy to the Senate from the House. She had announced for the House earlier this fall.

“I will seek the U.S. Senate seat, instead, due to the urging of many people with an interest in my role in the future of the state,” Gopher said.

Gopher said the proposal to “retire” Baucus was hers, “for the purpose of placing me in his seat to force a progressive Democratic agenda.” She cited an item she posted on Twitter Dec. 3.

Chuck Johnson is chief of the Lee Newspapers State Bureau in Helena. He can be reached by email at: chuck.johnson@lee.net or by phone at (406) 447-4066 or (800) 525-4920.

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