DOES CHARLES Ramsey want to be Philadelphia's police commissioner for life?

In all likelihood, if he values his sanity, the answer is no.

But there appears to be a chance that Ramsey might not exit stage left along with Mayor Nutter next January.

Most of the city's six Democratic mayoral candidates have expressed an interest - publicly, anyway - in having Ramsey continue to run the Philadelphia Police Department.

Perceived front-runners Lynne Abraham, Jim Kenney and Anthony Hardy Williams said the decision would be Ramsey's to make.

Only one candidate is flat-out opposed to the idea: T. Milton Street, who said "Ramsey's gone" if he's elected mayor.

Your thoughts, commissioner?

"Well, the reason I don't want to get into that is I don't think that's a public discussion," Ramsey told the Daily News last week.

"I think it's something the new mayor, whoever that might be, will have to decide for themself . . . and I would not want to say anything that would cause an issue or a problem."

Conventional wisdom tells you that a new mayor would want to handpick the top official in each of the major city agencies, much in the same way the new general manager of a football team would want to pick his own head coach.

So if Ramsey decides to retire next year, bringing an end to a storied 47-year policing career, who will replace him?

The insiders

In what amounts to a completely unscientific poll, the Daily News reached out to various members of the Philadelphia Police Department to get a read on internal speculation about the city's next top cop.

Deputy Commissioner Richard Ross is seen as the odds-on favorite to replace Ramsey, if the next mayor chooses from within the department.

It's a role he has been groomed for since 2005: then-Commissioner Sylvester Johnson promoted Ross from Homicide Unit captain to deputy commissioner. His responsibilities grew under Ramsey, who made Ross his second-in-command.

"Everyone thinks he's the most qualified and the most deserving," said a veteran police officer, who, like others the Daily News interviewed, did not want to be named, given the nature of the discussion.

"Look, he's pretty much been running the day-to-day operations for a while now, because Ramsey is out of town so much. Everybody knows that."

In addition to serving as co-chairman of President Obama's Task Force on 21st Century Policing, Ramsey also has been the president of the Police Executive Research Forum and the head of the Major Cities Chiefs Association - gigs that have all required travel.

Deputy Commissioner Kevin Bethel gets mentioned as a possible successor almost as often as Ross.

Ramsey promoted Bethel from the captain of Point Breeze's 17th District to his current post in the command staff, where he oversees patrol operations and detective divisions.

"What we hear on the grapevine is that Nutter has been pushing for Bethel, to a certain extent," said one veteran commander. "He's definitely had much higher visibility over the last few years."

Nutter's press office declined to make him available for an interview.

Chief Inspector Joseph Sullivan, who oversees Homeland Security and Civil Affairs, is viewed as another possible in-house candidate.

He has been the department's point person in recent years for dealing with a variety of activists who have marched through the city, whether the cause was Occupy Philadelphia or protests over police-involved shootings in Philadelphia and Ferguson, Mo.

The outsiders

Abraham, the former district attorney, is the only mayoral candidate who has gone on record as willing to look outside the Police Department for a new commissioner. She told the Daily News last week that it would be "prudent" to "give consideration to qualified applicants from other cities," noting that Ramsey came to Philly after lengthy stints in Washington, D.C., and Chicago.

Multiple cops mentioned SEPTA Police Chief Tom Nestel III as the most intriguing "wild card" candidate outside the department.

He might be best known to younger voters for his candid Twitter account, @TNestel3, but he had a previous 22-year run in the Philadelphia Police Department.

"I love him. He's a smart guy," said a longtime Philly police supervisor. "But his candor does make some people nervous. He'd shake things up here, and you don't know how that would be received across the board."

Two other former Philly cops who left the city to run their own departments were mentioned as long shots: Radnor Township Police Chief William Colarulo and Daytona Beach, Fla., Police Chief Mike Chitwood Jr.

Both know how to handle themselves in front of cameras - Colarulo once served as the Philadelphia Police Department's spokesman, and Chitwood is every bit as glib as his father, Upper Darby Police Superintendent Mike Chitwood Sr.

"There's a couple guys out there like that, but does the size of their departments equate with ours? Not really," said the veteran police officer.

Tough act to follow

Noticeably absent from this unofficial list of contenders are any female candidates.

When the city was last conducting a search for a new top cop, it had a serious contender in-house: Patricia Giorgio-Fox, the city's first female deputy commissioner.

The department now has three female deputies - Denise Turpin, Christine Coulter and Nola Joyce - but none has been described by insiders as being in the running for Ramsey's job.

Whoever follows Ramsey will have big shoes to fill.

Violent crime, which was the No. 1 issue of the 2007 mayor's race, fell significantly during Ramsey's tenure.

The homicide tally - an imperfect measure of quality of life in the city, but a number that people still fret over - stood at 248 last year, a far cry from the 389 slayings that were recorded the year before Ramsey came to Philly.

Under his leadership, the department grew to embrace smart policing strategies that were driven by statistics, technology and best practices used by other law-enforcement agencies, while also doubling down on having cops walk old-fashioned foot beats.

His tenure also has included plenty of tragedy and controversy.

Eight police officers have died in the line of duty, including Sgt. Robert Wilson III, who was gunned down by two robbers in a North Philly GameStop on March 5.

Ramsey's successor - unless it's himself - will have to work on implementing scores of recommendations to improve the department, both from a recently released Justice Department report on police-involved shootings and from the presidential Task Force on 21st Century Policing.

Weeding out corruption will continue to be a top concern, as will building better relationships with residents, particularly in minority communities.

Through it all, Ramsey has remained popular with the public, more so than any other member of the Nutter administration.

"Eight years [as commissioner] in a big city is a pretty long time," said John McNesby, the president of the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge No. 5. "After 40-some years in policing, I don't know when you call it quits. You got to have some time to enjoy yourself."

Ramsey, who just a few years ago flirted with finishing his career in his hometown of Chicago, seems nonplussed by the sudden uptick in speculation about his future.

"I feel pretty good," he said. "We've been through a lot, but I feel the department is making progress. Whenever people start to anticipate what may or may not occur, there's not really a whole lot you can do other than focus on doing your job.

"This is my 47th year in policing, so obviously my time will come to an end at some point. But I still love it."