With Jeff Raikes and Kevin Johnson available, the Microsoft CEO sweepstakes takes off

If you were to pick anyone who knows Microsoft(s msft) and its challenges as well as anyone, you could do worse than going with either Jeff Raikes or Kevin Johnson.

Jeff Raikes

Jeff Raikes

Raikes headed up Microsoft’s cash cow Office operation for years, and Kevin Johnson was a top Windows guy who also oversaw the company’s bid to buy Yahoo(s yhoo). Both Raikes and Johnson are retiring from their respective top CEO jobs. Raikes’ retirement from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation  was made public Tuesday. )  Johnson’s  plans to step down as CEO of Juniper Networks(s jnpr) were disclosed in July.

Depending on your point of view, the fact that both execs have strong Microsoft DNA and are nearing retirement age could be a plus or a minus. Some  think Microsoft needs a bold change and should bring in a young Turk from the outside to shake things up. Others hold that the company is far too large and complex for any newbie to manage successfully.

Juniper CEO and former Microsoft exec Kevin Johnson

Juniper CEO and former Microsoft exec Kevin Johnson

As for Raikes returning to Microsoft, AllThingsD’s Kara Swisher ain’t buying it. She said he plans to spend more time in his home state of Nebraska overseeing his own foundation.

In addition, support is building for Alan Mulally, who helped engineer turnarounds at both Boeing(s ba) and Ford(s f), to be on the short list for Microsoft CEO. Mulally’s family still lives in the Seattle area and he is said to be close with outgoing Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer. Ford is a huge Microsoft customer and Ballmer, is a Detroit native whose father was a Ford executive.

Reuters also puts former IBM(s ibm) exec and current CSC CEO Mike Lawrie on a short list of CEOs preferred by some of Microsoft’s largest institutional investors. It’s worthwhile noting that Lawrie spent time at ValueAct, the shareholder activist company that is seen driving big changes at Microsoft.

Other names that keep cropping up include Paul Maritz, a former Microsoft exec who is now CEO of Pivotal, and Stephen Elop, former CEO of Nokia, who is now back at Microsoft by virtue of its acquisition of the Nokia smartphone business.

If you want to put your money on this, Ladbroke’s has opened up betting on the Microsoft CEO successor.

Raikes photo courtesy of  Flickr user jurvetson