First comes the announcement. Then the obligatory trips to Iowa and New Hampshire. And now, inevitably, there's another rite of passage on the road to the White House: Authorship.
In an attempt to show they too can be the next "great communicator," presidential hopefuls are increasingly putting pen to paper and hitting the book circuit.
While the fawning autobiography or policy book has long been a staple of candidates, today's politicians are moving beyond simple hagiography about their childhood or stands on the capital gains tax. Now they're often trying to be Tom Wolfe, recounting heroic experiences, always about their own life, of course, and still usually flattering.
Consider this week's release of "An Amazing Adventure," Sen. Joseph Lieberman and his wife, Hadassah's, account of their time on the 2000 campaign. Sen. John Edwards, for his part, is writing a memoir about his work as a trial lawyer. Sen. John Kerry has asked historian Douglas Brinkley to write a book focusing on his time in Vietnam.
Even those who have decided not to run have been showing off their literary side: Al Gore published a tome on families last month, while Senate minority leader Tom Daschle is working on one about Congress.
As part of the introductory phase of the campaign - where candidates strive to present an image of themselves that they hope will endure - strategists agree a book can be an invaluable tool. For reporters, it offers a handy reference guide; for the public, it's something to get signed at rallies; and for the candidate, it's a free form of advertising - a chance to go on talk shows and see your face displayed in bookstores across America.
But occasionally, a book can have a more serious impact on a campaign - particularly if it strikes a chord with readers. Political strategists everywhere took note of the success of Sen. John McCain's "Faith of My Fathers," a harrowing account of his time as a prisoner of war in Vietnam. Not only did Senator McCain's memoir add fuel to his candidacy, but it also set a new bar for what a campaign book can achieve.
"If a big part of running for president is getting the American public to see your character, then a book like this could have an impact," says Mr. Brinkley, who places his upcoming book on Senator Kerry in the tradition of presidential war stories such as McCain's, or John Kennedy's account of PT-109.
For one thing, publishing a book allows a candidate to recount heroic exploits without having to do it directly in stump speeches, which might come across as bragging. Because so many people read his book, McCain "never really had to talk about being in Vietnam," says Mark Salter, the senator's chief of staff, who co-wrote "Faith of My Fathers."
In addition, candidates can use their books to try to dispel rumors that might dog them during the campaign. In the 2000 cycle, George W. Bush used his memoir, "A Charge to Keep," to address his past struggle with alcoholism, while largely refusing to discuss it in person.
OF course, few campaign books win critical acclaim, and they often find their way into remainder bins. Many tend to be safe and thus fairly bland efforts, revealing nothing that could damage a candidacy. "I've often wondered, does anybody really read these books?" says Stuart Rothenberg, a Washington political analyst. "I never want to - at least, not the whole book."
Many critics regarded Mr. Bush's book, which was ghostwritten by his longtime adviser Karen Hughes, as little more than several hundred pages of political spin. And already, Publishers Weekly has panned Senator Lieberman's new effort, calling it "a politically safe recounting of the  campaign that does double duty as a preview" of the themes of a possible 2004 Lieberman run.
But observers agree that books that take some risks - and attempt to be genuinely substantive, or literary - can offer great rewards. Mr. Salter says work began on McCain's book well before the senator decided to run for president - and that otherwise, he probably "would have sat down and written a book that was an extended bio, like everybody else."
McCain's staff, he says, wasn't happy to learn that he was committed to do a book tour for three months leading up to the New Hampshire primary. But the signings drew such big crowds that the reluctance dissolved.
On the other hand, more ambitious books can have unintended consequences. During the 2000 cycle, Pat Buchanan ignited a furor over a suggestion in his book that the US should not have gotten involved in World War II. Al Gore's environmental treatise "Earth in the Balance," though published in 1992, provided some fodder for the Bush campaign, by helping to cast the vice president as a wonky tree-hugger.
Brinkley says the Kerry campaign is taking a certain risk, relinquishing all control over his account of the Massachusetts senator's time in Vietnam. He is basing the book on Kerry's war diaries as well as on interviews with more than 150 people who knew him at the time. "I think it's a smart risk," Brinkley says. But "I think they are a little nervous."