Comerica Inc. promoted two executives to vice chairman Tuesday, setting up a three-way race to succeed chairman and chief executive officer Eugene A. Miller when he retires in four years.

Ralph W. Babb Jr., 50, was promoted from executive vice president to vice chairman. He will remain chief financial officer of the Detroit company.

Joseph J. Buttigieg 3d, 53, was promoted from executive vice president in charge of global banking to vice chairman of the business bank.

The two men join John D. Lewis, 50, who was named vice chairman of the individual and investment banks in 1995.

All three report to Mr. Miller, who was chairman and chief executive of Comerica before its 1992 merger with crosstown rival Manufacturers National Corp. He took those titles back in 1993.

Mr. Miller, 61, must retire by age 65, according to the company's bylaws. In an interview, he said he has no plans to retire early, though it is "reasonable" to conclude one of the three vice chairmen would succeed him.

"I think we've got a lot of talent in this company, not only the three men here," Mr. Miller said, noting there are 12 top executives at the company. But, he added, "eventually somebody will be elevated. We would have an orderly transition."

Mr. Miller plans to add the title of president June 1 when Michael T. Monahan, the former CEO of Manufacturers retires.

The promotion of Mr. Babb, who joined the company in 1995 from Mercantile Bancorp. of St. Louis, was a surprise since he has risen quickly to the same level as two longtime Comerica executives. Mr. Lewis is a 29- year veteran and Mr. Buttigieg is a 28-year veteran.

Anthony Polini, an analyst with Advest Group Inc., said Comerica has historically promoted longtime executives, but he believed Wall Street would be comfortable with any one of the three becoming CEO.

The $37 billion-asset Comerica was once considered an imminent takeover target, but it launched a major restructuring program in 1997 that included the reduction of 1,900 jobs, or 16% of its work force, and a streamlining of businesses. Mr. Miller said the three vice chairmen had important roles in that effort.

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