A wide-open Democratic field and rapid-fire calendar of contests are combining to produce a 2004 presidential campaign that is starting quickly and may end earlier than ever before.
The buildup to the race has been underway for well over a year, with the pace quickening recently as a string of White House hopefuls declared their intentions and filed the paperwork to start raising the roughly $20 million they may need to compete.
Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut is expected to join the field Monday with an announcement in his hometown.
The conclusion of the race could come abruptly -- conceivably less than a month after the balloting begins next January -- thanks to a dramatically compressed primary season that loads more important contests into a shorter time frame.
The paradoxical result may be a prolonged and furiously fought campaign taking place while few voters pay attention -- and ending before many of them notice. Or as Democratic strategist David Axelrod described it: "a very long run up to a very short sprint."
There is no shortage of candidates eager to face President Bush in 2004, a contrast with the last time a popular Bush, his father, was in the White House and Democrats cowered before his popularity poll numbers. With the party's heavyweights stepping aside, Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton jumped into the vacuum and defeated Bush, a lesson that has become a part of political lore.
"I think everyone is haunted by the ghosts of [former New York Gov.] Mario Cuomo and others who passed on that '92 race," Axelrod said. If anything, the prospect of yet another war with Iraq is prompting Democrats to hurry their announcements, stepping forward while people might still pay attention.
The Democratic field probably will include at least two candidates who have run national campaigns: Lieberman was the party's 2000 vice presidential nominee; Rep. Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri sought the White House in 1988.
Although he has never run nationally, Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts was tested in a stiff 1996 reelection fight against his state's popular governor, William Weld. Also declared are North Carolina Sen. John Edwards, ex-Vermont Gov. Howard Dean and the Rev. Al Sharpton. Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware is also considering a run, along with several others, including former Colorado Sen. Gary Hart and retired Gen. Wesley Clark. Biden would be making his second try for the White House and Hart his third.
With the exit last month of former Vice President Al Gore, there is no clear front-runner in the Democratic contest, which makes competition all the more keen to break from an increasingly crowded pack. To do so, candidates hope to demonstrate their strength in fund-raising, staff recruitment and endorsements. All come in finite quantities, hence the early jockeying. "Once the first candidate put his toe in the water it meant others had to be fast on his heels," said Mark Mellman, a Democratic pollster.
In addition to that intramural competition, the super-squeezed primary calendar has made an early start imperative.
It used to be that candidates could count on a strong showing in one of the two leadoff contests, the Iowa caucuses or the New Hampshire primary, to serve as a springboard for building momentum and, more importantly, raising money for the steeplechase of contests that followed over the next several months. No more. In 1996, California moved its primary from June to late March in hopes of gaining greater sway over the presidential nominating process. In response, other big states pushed their primaries ahead of California to make sure they still had a say.
What followed was a great game of leapfrog, which has continued in the run-up to the 2004 campaign. As a result, the primary calendar has grown so condensed and the nominating process so front-loaded that balloting will start and very likely end in a matter of weeks.
The Iowa caucuses are tentatively set for Jan. 19, 2004, followed by the New Hampshire primary Jan. 27. A week later, South Carolina and Missouri are set to vote, with Michigan likely to follow soon after. By the time the race gets to California on March 2, the fight for the nomination could very well be decided.
Given that frantic pace, any Democrat hoping to seriously vie in 2004 "had better have a lot of money in the bank" by the end of 2003, said Tom Nides, a Lieberman advisor. Come next January, he said, the candidates will want to be "in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina. You won't have a lot of time to go around doing fund-raising events in New York, Los Angeles or the other money hubs."
The start of the new year gave Democratic hopefuls a further incentive to launch their efforts; under federal law any money they raise from now on may be matched with public funds, up to $250 per contribution. That explains why so many candidates announced the formation of their exploratory committees -- which amounts to little more than filing paperwork with the Federal Election Commission. The more splashy declarations of candidacy, with balloons, bunting and other requisite props, are set for later this year.
In the meantime, candidates are combining their fund-raising efforts with the wooing of campaign strategists and the courtship of a small number of highly coveted activists in the key states of Iowa and New Hampshire.
Although most of the candidates have recruited at least a rudimentary corps of advisors, many carried over from elections past, a number of experienced veterans of the Clinton and Gore campaigns have yet to commit to a candidate. Within hours of Gore's announcement last month that he was skipping the 2004 contest, several of his advisors heard from Kerry, who has been among the most aggressive in his pursuit of the party's top-ranked talent.
"It's a little thing but says a lot about what he's been doing," said one of those who Kerry called. "He's worked the hell out of the phones."
If anything, the courtship is even more intense on the state level. In the last few days, Kerry and Gephardt snapped up operatives with close ties to Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack, giving a lift to their organizing efforts in that state's crucial contest.
"There are literally just a handful of people who have significant experience who can run the early states," said Donnie Fowler, who was a top Gore advisor and is so far neutral in the 2004 campaign. "With six or more serious presidential candidates, there just aren't enough of them to go around."
There is an added incentive for Democratic candidates to kick-start their efforts, even as most Americans seem content to leave the presidential politicking until sometime closer to the vote. That is the prospect of war with Iraq, which would not only complicate efforts to challenge the nation's commander in chief, but also draw much of the public's focus away from the candidates skirmishing for the chance to face Bush in November 2004.
"It's all the more reason to at least get out there with something now," said Carter Eskew, the strategist who produced the television advertising for Gore's 2000 campaign. "Because once that happens, you can forget it."