The ashes are barely cool from the 2002 election, but already it's showtime for the 2004 presidential hopefuls.
Candidates angling for the Democratic presidential nomination come under increased pressure at this time in the election cycle to show they've got the stuff - the support, the money (or the ability to raise it), and the vision - to ignite a campaign and, possibly, the public imagination.
Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts has formed an exploratory committee - the first formal signal of a bid to run for the highest office in the land - and Vermont Gov. Howard Dean has also tossed his hat in the ring. Thursday, Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina announced that he, too, would launch an exploratory committee. Over the course of the next few weeks, and possibly even the next few days, a number of other Democrats are expected to follow suit.
The early start is spurred in part by the scramble to attract top consultants, party activists, and donors - many of whom were left uncommitted after former Vice President Al Gore withdrew from the race last month. Because many contributors may wait to see who appears dominant before pledging support, candidates have a strong incentive to break out early on.
But the pace is also being quickened by the 2004 primary calendar, which starts earlier - and is more compressed - than ever before. With states now able to hold primaries just a few weeks after the Iowa and New Hampshire contests next January, according to a rule passed last year by the Democratic National Committee (DNC), candidates will be under more pressure to raise money early, so that, come primary season, they can afford to advertise in multiple states, simultaneously.
"Given the bunching up of the primaries in 2004, you need to have a certain threshold amount of money to compete," says Steve Grossman, a former DNC chair, who is heading Governor Dean's fundraising effort. "Between now and the 4th of July, every campaign has to establish that it can raise enough money to make the grade."
Not every candidate has to get in the race immediately, of course. Those with higher name recognition - such as Senate minority leader Tom Daschle, former House minority leader Richard Gephardt, and former vice-presidential nominee Joseph Lieberman - may have more time to decide, analysts say. And it's still possible for an unexpected contender to join the fray. Just last week, Sen. Bob Graham of Florida suddenly expressed interest.
Still, most observers say the window of opportunity won't stay open for long. Top political consultants will be snatched up by spring, says Dennis Goldford, a political scientist at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa. Most activists and donors will choose sides by early summer, making it "almost impossible for somebody to get in later," he says.
Strategists agree that the public won't start paying attention until late next fall, in the run-up to the first primaries. So this early stage of the campaign will be conducted largely within inner circles of the Democratic Party - among contributors, political professionals, and operatives in key states, as well as the media.
"All these candidates are going to spend the next nine months going around talking to the same 40,000 people," said Craig Smith, a top adviser to Senator Lieberman, at a recent panel discussion.
But the first priority is generating cash: In every presidential contest since 1980, the candidate who raised the most money in the year before the election won the nomination.
This is also the first electoral cycle to be governed by the new campaign finance law, which bans unlimited "soft money" contributions to political parties, while raising the limit on individual donations from $1,000 to $2,000. In the Democratic primary battle, this may not make much difference - but it could have a significant effect on the eventual nominee's ability to compete with President Bush, since Democrats have traditionally relied on soft money to close the fundraising gap against Republicans.
Given Mr. Bush's fundraising prowess - and the fact that he's unlikely to face primary opposition, and will probably not accept federal matching funds, freeing him from spending caps - Democrats may also feel pressure to decline public funds. "One of the reasons for starting early is seeing if you can really break the bank, so you don't have to depend on federal funds," says Stephen Wayne, a political scientist at Georgetown University.
This year, because of the compressed primary schedule, less well-funded candidates may face an even greater challenge. Dark-horse Democrats such as Governor Dean may still try to follow the Jimmy Carter strategy of winning support at the grass roots in Iowa and New Hampshire, and then building on strong performances in those primary contests to gain national prominence - and cash.
But analysts point out that the Jimmy Carter method hasn't really worked for anyone since, well, Jimmy Carter. In the 2000 Republican primary battle, for example, Arizona Sen. John McCain's surprise win in New Hampshire wasn't enough to wrest the nomination from Bush, in part because Senator McCain couldn't overcome a financial disadvantage. Democrats this year may have even less time to capitalize on early momentum, making it crucial to have a substantial war chest going in.
A strong performance in Iowa and New Hampshire "can take you a long way - if you have the financial resources to take full advantage of that bump," says Mr. Grossman of the Dean campaign. "And that is a big if."