Washington Last week, the Democrats chose Boston as the site for their 2004 national convention. Next week many of the potential candidates will be talking turkey with their families, using the long Thanksgiving weekend to examine the personal costs of a presidential campaign. Next month a series of exploratory committees will be formed to provide candidates with the legal structure they need to begin raising money.
And though the Iowa precinct caucuses, which are the formal opening of the presidential campaign, are 14 months from now, the struggle is now bursting into the open. The first indication: Sen. John F. Kerry's success in damping down talk inside the political establishment that his senior Massachusetts colleague, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, might support another contender. That sent two messages coursing through the political world. The first is that Kerry will be a formidable force in a nomination campaign that will end in his hometown. The second is that Democrats, hungry to find a new party leader and to regain the offensive in Washington, are not going to wait until 2003 to begin the nomination fight for 2004.
But Kerry was not alone. Former Vice President Al Gore of Tennessee, still heartbroken over his defeat in an election in which he won more votes than George W. Bush, has begun a media offensive that landed him on the cover of the Sunday magazine of The Washington Post, in the pages of Time and on a zillion television interview programs - all in the last several days. The ostensible reason for this attention is Gore's book on family issues. But in a political world where the most important voter group may be married adults with children, the Gore book has to be regarded as the opening of something bigger than a discussion about changes in the way Americans organize their private lives.
And so, with the Democrats committed to an earlier start to the presidential campaign than ever and with the candidates taking the cues from the calendar, here is a viewers' guide to what to watch for as the fight for the nomination begins:
- Follow the money. The campaign-finance overhaul that went into effect this month will have little effect on the presidential election. The candidates' hands are open and their phone lines are buzzing. Political professionals sometimes call the rush for money the "first primary," and there is something to that. In 1999, a year before he was nominated, for example, Gov. George W. Bush of Texas effectively pushed former Gov. Lamar Alexander out of the GOP presidential race because Alexander, who had one of the richest ZIP codes in the nation in his home state of Tennessee, couldn't keep up with Bush's remarkable fund-raising offensive.
- The Democrats' most gifted money man isn't available this time. He's Terry McAuliffe, the chairman of the Democratic National Committee, so the next few months will be the testing time for a new generation of fund-raisers.
- Follow the leaders. Those who want to lead need followers - and they start by recruiting local leaders. That quiet struggle is already well under way, both in Iowa and in New Hampshire, which holds the first primary eight days after Iowans flock to school houses and community centers to register their preferences in cozy caucuses in the midwinter chill. There are three great prizes: Gov. Thomas Vilsak and Lt. Gov. Sally Pederson of Iowa and retiring Gov. Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire. Of the three, Shaheen may pack the most punch, not because of the star power of her gubernatorial years but because of the successes she had as an organizer for the campaigns of Gov. Jimmy Carter of Georgia and Sen. Gary W. Hart of Colorado - both surprise winners in the New Hampshire primaries of 1976 and 1984, respectively.
- Follow the buzz. The first two factors contribute to the third, difficult to define, impossible to ignore. But there is a buzz in the early primary states, and it doesn't come from the mammoth machines that suck leaves from the streets in the fall. For a long while, the buzz was with Sen. John Edwards, the Democrat of North Carolina. He'll regain it if attention swerves from Iowa and New Hampshire, the first two states, to South Carolina, which is likely to be the third state. The buzz on Kerry is good right now, especially in New Hampshire, where he is well known.
- Rep. Richard A. Gephardt suffered from the Democrats' failure to retake the House, but he retains strong union support in Iowa and has appealing supporters in New Hampshire. Gov. Howard Dean of Vermont almost inevitably will have a month or so of rave reviews (they will cite his intelligence and his candor), but then again so did former Gov. Bruce Babbitt of Arizona, who left the 1988 race a day after the New Hampshire primary.
- Follow the swings in fortune. Some political figures are down so long it looks like up to them - and soon it is. Gore, left for dead politically, is now on a 25-day, 12-city tour, reaping publicity by the bushel. And if you are looking for an example of how political figures can find rehabilitation and redemption, look no farther than your television set.
- There's former Gov. Tom Ridge of Pennsylvania. A month ago, Washington wrote him off. This week he's a good bet to be the first secretary of homeland defense.
- David Shribman is a columnist for The Boston Globe.