Three are finalists for open Hawaii Senate seat

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HONOLULU – Hawaii Democrats on Wednesday picked U.S. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa, Lt. Gov. Brian Schatz and Department of Land and Natural Resources Deputy Director Esther Kiaaina as final nominees for the state's open U.S. Senate seat.

Louise Kim McCoy, a spokeswoman for Gov. Neil Abercrombie, confirmed the selections to The Associated Press. The AP learned of the names earlier through a member of the committee who voted on the names, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to release the list.

Hanabusa, Schatz and Kiaaina emerged from a crop of 14 candidates. Earlier Wednesday, 13 of the 14 candidates briefly made their cases before the state party's central committee in a meeting at the party's headquarters in small mall east of downtown Honolulu. Those not present made their cases in video messages, including Hanabusa, a front-runner for the job thanks to Inouye himself.

The committee then met in private to name three finalists, picking the first three candidates who receive majority support from the committee.

Under Hawaii law, the governor gets to make the final selection from the narrowed crop. The state party gets to pick three candidates because Inouye, who died last week, was a Democrat.

Before he died last week, Inouye pushed to be replaced by Hanabusa. He told Abercrombie in a letter it was his last wish.

It's not clear how much weight Abercrombie will give Inouye's letter as he considers his pick. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has urged that the governor make his selection quickly so that the new senator could take part in important votes at the end of the year, including legislation on the so-called fiscal cliff crisis.

The appointee will serve until a general election in 2014, when an election will be held to fill the seat through 2016, the end of Inouye's elected term.

Hanabusa, 61, said in a video message played at the Wednesday morning meeting that she's honored to have Inouye's support but she also is qualified to assume the seat and hit the ground running.

"Not one of us has any favorable rights to that position," she said.

Schatz, 40, said that if appointed, he would try to make being a U.S. senator his life's work. Both he and incoming U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, 31, stressed the need to build up seniority over decades.

Gabbard spent part of Christmas Day tweeting and sharing messages of support for her candidacy through her campaign website. Among others, Newark, N.J., mayor Cory Booker said on Twitter that Gabbard should get the appointment.

Kiaaina lost a primary race to Gabbard earlier this year.

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