WASHINGTON — Every four years, the race for president is slightly different from previous campaign cycles. This year, Democrats face the most compact primary schedule in history, and after the opening bell - the Jan. 19 caucuses in Iowa - the party's nomination could well be locked up in a matter of weeks.
Which leads to the musical question: How does a Democrat who wants to be president manage the slow lead-up to the big bang?
Two of the Democrats, former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean and Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, opted to go up early with television ads in key primary states. Dr. Dean is now the undisputed front-runner in the first two states, Iowa and New Hampshire; Senator Edwards remains mired in single digits.
Advertising, of course, is only part of the mix that feeds into how voters react to a candidate. Dean has also followed the Jimmy Carter model of dark-horse success: Show up in Iowa and New Hampshire early and often, and shake as many hands in as many living rooms as possible.
Still, political analysts credit Dean's simple and blunt TV ads with contributing to the buzz that built around his campaign early - combined with his innovative use of the Internet - which in turn has led many Democrats to open their checkbooks.
The Dean campaign is flush with cash, and set to break party fundraising records for the quarter that ends Sept. 30. That has meant more spending on more ads in more states.
But the message has been just as important as the medium, which may help explain why Dean has flourished while Edwards has not.
"Dean has gotten a lot of attention, because he was the first prominent candidate in the field to seriously question whether we should be involved in Iraq," says Peverill Squire, a political scientist at the University of Iowa in Iowa City. "He's been able to capitalize on that."
Edwards's first ad focused on introducing himself to voters, not on policy. "He comes across as very pleasant, not out of step with the basic values of Iowa," says Professor Squire. "But he does have to take that next step and explain why they should vote for him."
The other two Democrats now up with TV ads - Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts and Rep. Dick Gephardt of Missouri - have also not made a big impression with Iowa voters, say analysts.
For Representative Gephardt, who ran for president before, in 1988, and won the Iowa caucuses then, the challenge is to seem new; he has to reintroduce himself to the Iowans who remember his first campaign, and also get newcomers and younger voters to consider him for the first time. The fact that he comes from a neighboring state helps, but he still has to work hard there.
The fact that Dean - the former governor of a small, faraway state - is beating Gephardt so far in his own backyard does not bode well.
Analysts note that there's still time to beat Dean, but his opponents can't wait around for him to stumble. "Pretty soon, if Dean continues to hold the lead, they'll start taking shots," says Squire. "The clock is running now, and time is short to start making headway against Dean."
In New Hampshire, where local boys Dean and Kerry are fighting for the mantle of "favorite son," Dean is also the front-runner with a double-digit lead in recent polls. One of Kerry's television ads, launched after Labor Day, uses shots from his recent campaign-announcement tour.
But New Hampshire political analysts question their effectiveness. Independent pollster Dick Bennett refers to Kerry's ads producing a "Castro effect" - speaking to big crowds, which tells TV viewers that he's speaking to someone else, not them. Mr. Bennett also critiques Gephardt's TV ads as being too "MTV-style" - quick cuts from scene to scene that don't allow the viewer to focus on the candidate.
"The easiest way to explain it is, the ads should work for older voters," says Bennett. "They need more time to connect."
In New Hampshire, the majority of primary voters are over 45, and so candidates need to focus on messages and a style that appeals to them, he says. The irony is that the slick, highly produced ads are more expensive, while the simple low-tech Dean ads - with the candidate just speaking into the camera - are cheaper.
Along with all his other early advantages, Dean is getting more bang for the buck.