It's a chilly night for June, but the 60 or so folks gathered in Jay Kahn's small backyard here don't seem to mind. Awaiting the arrival of Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D) of Connecticut having paid $25 each for the privilege they help themselves to crackers and cheese and punch with sherbet floating on top. Between swats at mosquitoes, talk centers on national security and the economy.
The scene has a quaint, almost old-fashioned quality. But the timing betrays a phenomenon unique to modern politics. With the next presidential election still two and a half years away, the campaign among Democratic hopefuls is already well under way. Although generally beneath the public's radar screen, top contenders are steadily raising money, testing messages, and wooing party officials and activists in key states.
Given New Hampshire's first-in-the-nation primary and the frontloaded 2004 schedule, under which the Democratic nominee could be decided by the first week in February an early start there has become all the more important.
Several Keene residents note that House minority leader Richard Gephardt was recently in the area. Sen. John Kerry of neighboring Massachusetts has traveled to the Granite State several times, as has North Carolina Sen. John Edwards, who is returning later this month.
"Anybody who wants to seek the Democratic nomination in '04 has to make a decision by the end of this year," says Senator Lieberman, in an interview over a late-night sandwich in Manchester, N.H. "And that's why we're all traveling around going to a lot of places, but particularly, obviously, places that may have early primaries or caucuses."
Other states receiving early visits from top contenders include Iowa, which holds the nation's first electoral test in the form of caucuses, and South Carolina, whose primary will come just one week after New Hampshire's. Several Democrats have also made their way out to California, usually for fundraising.
Of course, 2004 isn't the sole reason these politicians are spending so much time on the road. This fall's congressional elections will dictate which party controls the US House and Senate for the next two years and states such as New Hampshire, which has several competitive races, could prove critical.
At the house party in Keene, for example, Lieberman implores local Democrats to work toward the election of Gov. Jeanne Shaheen (D), who is hoping to unseat Sen. Bob Smith.
Still, the main purpose of his visit is clear to all. The host actually introduces Lieberman as "a presidential candidate," to which the senator jokingly responds, "Did you just declare my candidacy?"
After brief remarks on the themes of security, opportunity, and values, he answers questions on topics from healthcare to Iraq, and then hangs around to shake hands and mingle. Most people seem impressed, though nearly all say they aren't yet backing any particular candidate.
"People here are very uncommitted," explains Judy Kalich, an administrator at Keene State College. "They have to meet a candidate three or four times."
Lieberman is more familiar with this process than most, having been part of the Democratic ticket in 2000.
He says the experience taught him just how "enormous" a national campaign is: "I have never done anything as demanding in my professional life." Serious candidates have no choice but to start laying the groundwork early, he says, "Because it's too big. And when it starts in '04, it's going to move quickly."
So far, no Democrat has actually announced an intention to run although Vermont Gov. Howard Dean has come close, setting up an official presidential campaign committee.
University of New Hampshire political scientist Mark Wrighton characterizes the current Democratic field as "wide open," though he sees "a hierarchy at the moment," with Senators Kerry and Lieberman at the top, along with Al Gore.
Mr. Gore remains the heavy frontrunner among Democrats in national polls. Whether or not he decides to run will likely determine the fate of several of the other potential candidates and none more so than Lieberman, who has promised not to challenge his former running mate.
Asked if he'd consider running on the ticket with Gore again, Lieberman says, "It's a fair question," but adds, "I haven't allowed myself to think about that, because I'm focused on the possibility that I might run for president."
Among those New Hampshire residents who turn out to meet Lieberman, there's little enthusiasm for another Gore run.
"I think his time is done," says Malcom Katz, an architect from Keene. "It would be an unfortunate reminiscence."
Analysts agree that for all Gore's advantages, his frontrunner status is hardly fixed. "The fact that there are other prominent Democrats coming to New Hampshire is a sign that they and their supporters do not think it's a given that Gore will be the nominee," points out Professor Wrighton.
Before returning to Washington, Lieberman visits the Bakersville elementary school in Manchester, where he holds a round-table with local educators.
He also stops to visit a second-grade classroom, where one boy confides that he'd like to grow up to be president someday.
"That's a strange ambition," says Lieberman, smiling broadly. "But let me tell you something: If you want to be president, you've come to the right state."