Meeting behind closed doors and sliding screens, Japanese ruling party members began sketching out strategies Wednesday for replacing outgoing Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto and winning back their plunging public support.

Hashimoto's sudden decision Monday to resign over his Liberal Democratic Party's disastrous performance in weekend elections has left party elders with no obvious successor to fill the void, though several possible contenders have emerged.The party asked for candidates Wednesday to formally step forward, a move that increases the pressure to settle on a party standard bearer. The party hopes the move will cool the wave of speculation that has dominated Japan's media.

The party was expected to schedule a vote of its lawmakers in both houses of Parliament to formally select a new LDP head on July 21. A vote in Parliament, likely before the end of the month, would then be held to choose the prime minister.

While the conservative ruling party suffered a setback in Sunday's elections for the upper house of Parliament, it still controls the government because it has a comfortable majority in the more powerful lower house. Thus its party president is assured of becoming prime minister.

But the party appears torn between calls for a fresh face in the wake of its defeat, a desire to nominate a veteran politician with a proven track record and a tradition for reaching a broad consensus on its leadership.

Moving to fill the power vacuum, the Liberal Democrat's biggest faction has begun to close ranks around Foreign Minister Keizo Obuchi, a soft-spoken insider not known for bold policy initiatives.

Japanese newspapers reported that party elders granted Obuchi approval Wednesday to enter the race and that he will publicly announce his candidacy Thursday.

While he has few enemies within the party, Obuchi is viewed by some as a puppet for party elders and could prove an unpopular and ineffective leader.

Another likely contender is Health Minister Junichiro Koizumi, a maverick favored by younger party members. But Koizumi's chances may be hurt by his status as a lone wolf and his efforts in the past to privatize the Postal Ministry - a traditional bastion of support for the LDP.

Other possibilities include former Chief Cabinet Secretary Seiroku Kajiyama and Yohei Kono - the only former party head who has yet to serve as prime minister.

Optimism that the choice of a Hashimoto successor will be accompanied by new steps to stimulate Japan's recessionary economy have been offset by nagging concerns that economic policy will be held hostage to the same type of political haggling that dogged the outgoing administration.