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Handicapping the HP CEO selection

The clock is ticking for HP to name a new CEO, as the tech giant once known for its no-drama approach struggles to move on from the Hurd resignation saga.

On Friday, it will have been seven weeks since Hewlett-Packard shocked the technology and corporate world by announcing the embarrassing resignation of its superstar chief executive, Mark Hurd.  HP’s board members privately began telling people it wanted to beat the time it took to replace Carly Fiorina, now a Republican candidate for U.S. Senate in California, with Hurd, then an outsider from the smallish Ohio company NCR (NCR). That speedy and arguably successful result: a day shy of seven weeks.

Tick, tock, tick, tock, tick, tock ….

Reports earlier in the week said the board was closing in on a replacement and that an internal hire was favored.  If that’s so, PC chief Todd Bradley is the odds-on favorite, with other speculation centering on Ann Livermore, the HP (HPQ) veteran who runs the company’s giant enterprise division, and Dave Donatelli, a younger, ex-EMC executive who works for Livermore. (He appeared with Livermore this week at Oracle’s annual developer conference.)

People who don’t know HP have stopped speculating about Vyomesh Joshi, the printer boss, who is an unlikely pick. HP also has a former CEO in its midst, Tom Hogan, who headed a software company called Vignette, has an IBM (IBM) background and currently runs sales for HP.

While tossing around unlikely names, it’s worth noting HP’s strategy chief, the somewhat enigmatic Compaq veteran Shane Robison, as well as Bill Veghte, the newly arrived Microsoftian who had an accomplished career in the Borg’s Windows franchise and now heads HP’s nascent software business, a job Hogan previous held.

A total bombshell dark horse would be Michael Holston, HP’s ambitious general counsel, who has his fingers in many administrative pies at HP these days.

But wait, there’s more. The most active speculation about HP’s next CEO seems to center around its suddenly most visible board member, Marc Andreessen. Never mind that the browser pioneer and extremely busy venture capitalist — who, by the way, is out raising a new fund currently, an extremely awkward complication were he to suddenly leave his firm — has never run a large organization. He is a technologist and a visionary, qualities needed at HP’s helm.

A final, quasi-insider name that has started popping up is John Joyce, the former IBM chief financial investor and former Silver Lake private-equity investor who also is on HP’s board. As a finance guy, Joyce would be an unlikely pick. Joyce makes an appearance in James Bandler’s saga about former IBM executive Robert Moffat. It was Joyce who introduced Moffat to the woman who led to his downfall, and Joyce himself abruptly resigned from Silver Lake this year, as Bandler writes, “amid questions from Fortune about his friendship” with Danielle Chiesi

There is tremendous pressure on the board to name an insider — a preference it appears to be leaking to the press — after going outside for the last two CEOs. If it does, Bradley will be the most obvious choice. Like Hurd, he’s a numbers guy, and he’s a forceful operational executive who wants the job badly. Desire is  good for a task like this, which will be thankless — besides the tens of millions of dollars that will be thrown his way.

If the top spot goes to Bradley, I think the board will make Livermore its chairman. This would accomplish a few goals. It would put a woman in a top spot, something HP would like for a variety of reasons. Also, Livermore is a true HP insider, having joined the company in 1982.

Hurd hired Bradley. In HP terms, he’s a newbie. Elevating Livermore would give HP the opportunity to advance Donatelli to a massive job and make him Bradley’s heir apparent. It similarly could make printing chief Joshi, also a longtime HPer, the chairman, also making room for new blood in a senior role.

Another scenario could see Andreessen as non-executive chairman, putting a famous technologist in a prominent position overseeing a CEO with the general-management experience Andreessen lacks. On the assumption the CEO and chairman position will be split, Joyce also could be an outside chairman type.

Whatever happens, HP’s next move will begin a massive game of musical chairs. There’s no way Bradley will stick around if he’s passed over, meaning HP will need someone new for its market share-leading PC business no matter what. One out-of-work executive who could step in there is Tony Fadell, the ex-Apple (AAPL) executive credited with steering the launch of the iPod. He left a couple years ago after sparring with Steve Jobs and cut his last ties to Apple this year.

HP’s board has plenty on its plate.  It also faces a firm deadline. On Tuesday, the company will host financial analysts for a long-scheduled, afternoon-long update on the company. Will HP put forth its interim CEO, Cathie Lesjak, an unsatisfying experience for investors wanting to be assured of the firm’s direction? Will any directors step up and face the public, which only Andreessen has done, briefly,  so far? Will HP trot out an outsider I haven’t named and ask the various insiders who were passed over to share the stage with him or her?

Only one thing is certain: The drama at the one-time no-drama company continues.