MISSOULA, Mont. -

Just hours after U.S. Sen. John Walsh announced he was dropping out of the race for re-election, the Montana Democratic Party held a conference call where leaders outlined their plan for nominating a new candidate.

The party has less than two weeks to do it -- the deadline is August 20.

Party rules require the party to hold a special nominating convention, where the State Party Executive Board will vote on a new nominee. The board includes, among others, Montana State House leadership, Montana State Senate leaders, and all Democrats currently holding statewide or federal office.

State Sen. Dave Wanzenried says he is open to running for Walsh's seat if the Democrats give him the go-ahead. Wanzenried currently represents Senate District 49 in Missoula.

"I'm available. I'm eager to make sure that we make clear distinctions between what we stand for as Democrats and as Montanans against the candidate that's been nominated by the Republicans, and make the case that we are the better choice," Wanzenried told NBC Montana on Thursday.

Wanzenried also expressed sympathy for Walsh.

"Any time someone runs for a statewide office, they put themselves on the firing line. Obviously I feel for Senator Walsh making a tough decision -- both he and his family -- for him to withdraw," said Wanzenried.

Wanzenried has been in the State Senate for 8 years, and also served in the House of Representatives for 10 years. His current term is at its tail end.
 State Rep. Ellie Boldman Hill, an outspoken supporter of Walsh, says Walsh called her personally to let her know he was pulling out of the race. Hill will be among the party members voting for a new nominee at that convention.

She calls the New York Times article that accused Walsh of plagiarizing in a 2007 paper he wrote a "hit piece."

“I think it's unfortunate,” said Hill. “It was a distraction for the campaign, and a distraction that we just couldn't get past. I'm excited about the future. I'm so thankful for John Walsh's service, and we'll see who we put up now against Steve Daines."

Party leaders said on a conference call that they are in the middle of solidifying a location and date for the nominating convention and they expect to make an announcement soon.

They have set up a special email address, ourparty@montanademocrats.org, for party members and the public to give input on the process and on any potential nominees.

"I know there's a lot of names being bantered around and I'm just excited that maybe  we have an opportunity to put someone on the ballot that can stand up for the values that i feel like we need against Steve Daines right now," said Hill.

Meanwhile, NBC Montana stopped by the Missoula County Fair to see how the Missoula-area Democrats and Republicans are reacting to Walsh's withdrawal.

Missoula Democrat Theresa Martinosky didn't speak on behalf of Missoula County Democrats, but did share her personal opinions.

"I guess I'm disappointed to hear that he's dropping out at this point.  I think that he could have fought a little harder, stuck up for himself a little more," said Martinosky.

John Anguin, chair of the Missoula County Republican Central Committee, told NBC Montana he respects Walsh, but didn't feel he was right for Montana.

"I think he's probably making a smart move and under the pressure from the Democrat Party...I respect that he's going to be in for the remainder of the term," said Anguin.