Microsoft (MSFT) is inching closer to naming a new chief executive to replace Steve Ballmer but it won’t be current Ford (F) boss Alan Mulally—rumored to be the software giant’s front runner—who’s now said publicly that he’s keeping his job with the automaker.

Mulally told the Associated Press he’s staying at Ford at least through the end of this year, effectively ending chatter that the turnaround specialist was on the next plane to Redmond. "I would like to end the Microsoft speculation because I have no other plans to do anything other than serve Ford," Mulally said. "You don't have to worry about me leaving."

With Mulally out of the way, and another buzzed-about candidate—Qualcomm’s (QCOM) newly named chief executive Steve Mollenkopf—bowing out in December, does that elevate the prospects for Ballmer’s key understudies, namely, business development head Tony Bates, returning ex-Nokia (NOK) boss Stephen Elop and cloud and enterprise executive vice president Satya Nadella, to ascend to Microsoft’s top spot? Or is the vendor’s search committee homing in on someone else?

According to sources cited in a Reuters report, Microsoft now is down to a “handful” of serious candidates, including two from outside the company. That group likely includes Bates, Elop and Nadella but exactly who’s under consideration from the outside is still anyone’s guess.

Whether Mulally ever talked in earnest to Microsoft about the chief executive job isn’t clear, with some concluding that because he never denied interest in the job, he must have chatted with the vendor’s search committee. That Mulally advised Ballmer on Microsoft’s massive pro-collaboration reorganization last summer—mirroring his own earlier Ford makeover—certainly promoted his candidacy.

But more importantly, the fact that Microsoft apparently regarded Mulally as a strong candidate suggests the vendor’s board and search committee believe, at least to some extent, the company needs a leader to frame a new culture going forward as much or more as one to lead it technologically.

That might not bode well for any of the internal candidates—all of whom, to one degree or another, are steeped in the company culture built and refined by Ballmer and chairman Bill Gates.

As expected, Microsoft has nothing to say about all the latest guesses at the company’s next boss.

"Out of respect for the process and the potential candidates, we don't comment on individual names," a Microsoft spokesperson said.