They come from near and far, the famous and the not-so-famous, eager to press the flesh and help local party members raise cash.
Top destinations: Iowa and New Hampshire. None of them, they will tell you, is definitely running for president. "Just testing the waters," the inevitable explanation comes. Or, "Not ruling anything out."
But the truth is, like it or not, the 2000 race for president is in full swing. And with the term-limited President Clinton out of the running, the contest is wide open. For the first time since 1964, the Republican Party has no heir apparent poised to take the GOP nomination. On the Democratic side, Vice President Al Gore remains the man to beat, but he is wounded by fund-raising flaps, growing divisions within the party, and his own less-than-charismatic style.
And so, the list of potential hopefuls grows, and the sightings of ambitious party men and women in early nominating states (see Iowa and New Hampshire) fill political Web sites and newsletters. Last week alone, five Republican possibles filed through Iowa. "There were more candidates here than citizens," jokes Keith Fortmann, executive director of the Iowa Republican Party.
They were, for the record: former Vice President Dan Quayle, publisher Steve Forbes, former Education Secretary Lamar Alexander, Sen. John Ashcroft of Missouri, and Sen. Bob Smith of New Hampshire.
The truth is that just about anyone thinking of jumping in really has to jump soon. Even though candidates cannot start raising money that qualifies them for federal matching funds until Jan. 1, 1999, they need to be out there now, meeting local activists and future donors, building name recognition, scouting out possible staff.
Once the bell rings on New Year's Day 1999, candidates with any hope of mounting a serious campaign will need to raise more than $25,000 a day - all in small increments of $1,000 or less from individuals and $5,000 from political action committees. To do that, they'll have to have a finely tuned machine already in place.
One of the few reported Republican hopefuls who can get away with not playing the game now is Texas Gov. George W. Bush. As the son of the former president, he already has high name recognition and his father's Rolodex at his disposal.
For now, he's concentrating on governing Texas - a strong base for a presidential campaign - and working on being reelected in 1998 (though he was in New England last week).
An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll from September showed 24 percent of Republican voters preferring Governor Bush over anyone else for the GOP 2000 nomination. Next in line with 14 percent each were Red Cross President Elizabeth Dole and last year's vice-presidential nominee, Jack Kemp.
Of course, those numbers probably gauge name recognition as much as anything else. For voters, the 2000 election is light years away. "The campaign doesn't have a shape yet," says Jack Pitney, a political analyst at Claremont-McKenna College in California.
Take Jack Kemp. He scores relatively high among potential primary voters, but among GOP insiders he is practically persona non grata for what they see as a poor performance last year as GOP vice-presidential candidate. That could hurt his ability to lay the groundwork for a campaign.
And as for Elizabeth Dole, wife of last year's GOP presidential nominee Bob Dole, she has done little to indicate she's seriously thinking of running for president - her husband's humorous hints aside. Still, the idea of a Bush-Dole campaign in 2000 sets some Republican hearts aflutter.
"Bush-Dole would be a strong ticket," says Allan Lichtman, a presidential analyst at The American University here.
The Republicans trying hardest in Iowa are Mr. Forbes, Mr. Alexander, Quayle, and Kemp, who have each been in the state several times this year. Forbes gets points for improving his speaking style and for broadening his message beyond just economic issues. He has worked hard to court religious conservatives by taking on their issues with some vigor.
Alexander is trying to win over Iowa Republicans by infiltrating the state's political machine. He has hired GOP Gov. Terry Branstad's former campaign manager, and has asked Governor Branstad himself to chair his political action committee when he leaves office next year.
"I have more discipline and focus" now than during last year's campaign, says Alexander in an interview.
Quayle has succeeded in winning the hearts of many religious conservatives, but it may be impossible for him ever to shake the negative image he earned the moment he was nominated for vice president in 1988, many analysts say.
On the Democratic side, Gore remains the favorite to succeed his boss as the party's nominee - so long as the economy stays strong. But the list of Democrats prowling around New Hampshire and Iowa continues to grow. There is, of course, Democratic House leader Richard Gephardt of Missouri, who has been gunning for Gore for years - and who scored a big ideological victory in the recent defeat of the "fast track" free-trade bill.
Also seen poking around in New Hampshire lately is neighboring Gov. Howard Dean (D) of Vermont, who at a recent Monitor breakfast barely disguised his interest in the 2000 race.
Sen. Bob Kerrey of Nebraska travels a lot on behalf of candidates for the Senate, and so has many Democratic contacts around the country, but the dark streak in his personality may hurt his chances, analysts say.
Meanwhile, Sen. Paul Wellstone of Minnesota, an unadulterated liberal, has also made some forays into early primary states. A Wellstone candidacy could show how big the old liberal wing of the party really is.
For now, though, Gore is in decent shape to capture the nomination. "He begins the process well-known and in general, very well-liked," says Dayton Duncan, a Democrat and author of a book on the New Hampshire primary.