By John M. Broder and Patrick Healy
Two years before the next president is inaugurated and a full year before the first vote is cast, the contest for the White House is off to a breathtakingly fast start, exposing an ever-growing field of candidates to longer, more intensive scrutiny and increasing the amount of money they need to remain viable.
The scale and swiftness of the action has the potential to upset the traditional timetables and conventions of presidential campaigning.
John Weaver, a senior adviser to Senator John McCain’s presidential effort, said the intensified announcement season and compressed primary calendar would force campaigns to develop a strong national apparatus and well-organized field efforts state by state.
“It makes it nearly impossible for a dark horse candidate to break out of the pack and challenge the front-runner(s) and thus isn’t healthy for the process,” Mr. Weaver wrote in an e-mail message on Sunday. “All of these states, who are moving up early, want to play and have an impact. But oddly enough, it ultimately will limit the legitimate candidate choices for the nation at large in the primary process.”
The candidates could be forced to move more quickly to take positions on big issues, stripping them of the chance to run on more gauzy platforms in the early stages and therefore exposing them to more direct criticism from rivals, interest groups and the news media. They will face earlier encounters with one another -- New Hampshire and South Carolina are planning full-scale debates this spring -- that will require them to display both policy expertise and a comfort level in front of the cameras.
They will be getting intensive scrutiny from opposition research operations, the news media and the public for that much longer, increasing the chances that a gaffe or position change could harm their campaigns. Deep into competition for experienced staff members, most candidates are already putting together operations in multiple states.
Kevin Madden, press secretary for the exploratory committee set up by former Gov. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts, a Republican, said his organization was already “beginning to put our teams together” for the early contests in New Hampshire, Iowa, South Carolina, Michigan and several states beyond. “It’s happened at a very advanced pace,” Mr. Madden said, “but you can’t complain and wring your hands. You just have to work harder, faster.”
Because they do not want competitors to be raising money unchallenged, more candidates are declaring their intentions earlier, which in turn means the entire field needs more money to sustain campaigns for a longer time.
There are now a dozen serious contenders from both parties competing in a presidential race that for the first time in more than half a century will not include an incumbent -- either the president or the vice president -- on the ballot or even a definitive front-runner.
“Crowded fields force early announcements,” said Jennifer Palmieri, an adviser to John Edwards, the former senator from North Carolina who is seeking the Democratic nomination. “Candidates are concerned there will not be enough oxygen left for them if they wait too long. Having crowded fields in both parties has exacerbated this phenomenon.”
Just hours after Mrs. Clinton made her candidacy official on Saturday, Senator Sam Brownback of Kansas joined the race for the Republican nomination. Last week, Senator Barack Obama, Democrat of Illinois, opened a presidential exploratory committee, emphasizing the wide-open nature of the race.
The early start of the presidential race may make it difficult for the new Democratic leaders in Congress to generate public support and media attention for their agenda. Seven sitting members of the House and Senate have declared their candidacies and several others are said to be considering it, distracting them from legislative business and drawing news coverage away from Congress and out onto the campaign trail.
John D. Podesta, a former chief of staff for President Bill Clinton and president of the Center for American Progress, said some of the early candidates surely recall the lesson of Gen. Wesley K. Clark, the Democrat who waited to jump into the last presidential race until the fall of 2003.
Given the lateness of his entry, and his limited resources, General Clark decided to skip the Iowa caucuses and focus on the New Hampshire primary. Iowa became an unexpectedly fierce contest, with John Kerry emerging as a winner and quickly rolling on to victories in New Hampshire and other early primary states.
“You need to get a foothold early and organize and get people to rally around you and your message,” Mr. Podesta said, “and the need to build momentum is real.”
The candidates and the early primary states are chasing each other in a mad circle, with two new states, Nevada and South Carolina, squeezing into the first weeks of the primary calendar. A number of other states, including California, New Jersey, Michigan and Illinois, are considering moving up their primaries so that they are not left out of the nominating process. With their expensive media markets, these states could quickly bankrupt candidates who have trouble raising money.
The intensity of the early action is fueled in part by President Bush’s political weakness, brought on largely because of the unpopularity of the war in Iraq.
“If Bush were doing well and had a continuing ability to get things done and command the national stage, I think there would be far less focus on the campaign,” said Robert Dallek, a presidential historian.
While presidential campaigns have been getting gradually longer over the past few decades, the acceleration in the 2008 cycle is particularly pronounced. The first President Bush announced his candidacy for the 1988 Republican nomination in October 1987; the eventual Democratic nominee in that election, Gov. Michael S. Dukakis of Massachusetts, had declared six months earlier.
Bill Clinton formally announced his candidacy for the 1992 Democratic presidential nomination on Oct. 3, 1991, about three and a half months before the Iowa caucuses. George W. Bush announced his exploratory committee for the 2000 presidential race in March 1999 and began his campaign in June 1999.
By comparison, Mr. Edwards of North Carolina, the 2004 vice-presidential nominee, has traveled to Iowa 16 times since the beginning of last year, building his organization there in hopes of scoring an early triumph that carries him into the next contests.
“The earlier process will reward candidates who truly have a succinct, credible, authentic and passionate message which can sustain itself over the long nature of the campaign,” said Matthew Dowd, the chief strategist for Mr. Bush’s re-election campaign in 2004.
He also said that in 2007 candidates would be rewarded by scoring points in “nonvoting events” such as media attention, their standings in the polls and the size and response of crowds, because those sorts of factors will help winnow the field more than the primaries still a year away.
Despite the intense focus by most candidates on showing that they can raise the money to run a long and expensive campaign, having a big bank account, Mr. Dowd argued, may actually not be as important in the early stages of this presidential cycle as it was in previous ones.
“It’s for two reasons: the early process will not involve paid media as much, and new technology allows little cost to talk directly to voters,” he said. “And the early process will make it more important for a campaign to know how to respond to knowable and unknowable events in next 12 months.”
Steve Elmendorf, a Democratic strategist who worked on the presidential campaigns of Representative Richard A. Gephardt in 2003 and Senator John Kerry in 2004, warned that candidates and their aides, no matter how tired they become, would have to stay on their toes because any misstep might be captured on tape and circulated on the Internet.
“Every move they make in Iowa and New Hampshire will be on YouTube,” Mr. Elmendorf said. “The only certainty by January ’08 is that people will be pretty tired.”
Besides taking a toll on the declared candidates, the length and cost of current campaigns also deters potential entrants. Senator Evan Bayh of Indiana and former Gov. Mark Warner of Virginia were considered among the brightest Democratic prospects, but both declined to run. They cited the crowded field, the endless burden of fund-raising and the brutal personal cost of today’s presidential campaigns.
Robin Toner and Jeff Zeleny contributed reporting from Washington, and Adam Nagourney from Atlanta.
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