The Democratic field for president in 2004 should start taking shape in the days and weeks ahead, with Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry expected to open an exploratory committee and Missouri Rep. Dick Gephardt likely to tell colleagues whether he plans to run.

The 2004 Democratic presidential field is now occupied only by Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, but is likely to grow to nearly a half dozen.

The Thanksgiving holidays probably offer a last lull before the lineup of competitors becomes more clear.

Al Gore, the Democratic nominee two years ago, says he will make a decision over the Christmas holidays. Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman, who was Gore's running mate in 2000, has expressed interest in running, but says he won't if Gore does.

"John Kerry has never been coy about the seriousness of his potential candidacy,'' spokesman David Wade said. "He's traveled the country having honest discussions with folks from all walks of life and it's convinced him many Americans are hungry for a better kind of politics.''

While Kerry won't make a final decision until after the New Year's holiday, aides say the formation of an exploratory committee would be a significant step.

If he runs, the Massachusetts senator can count on an experienced team of political advisers.

Michael Whouley, a senior adviser for the Gore campaign in 2000, is expected to play a similar role for a Kerry candidacy. Jim Jordan, executive director of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, is likely to be campaign manager. Among Kerry's top fund-raisers will be Robert Farmer, who helped raise money in the campaign of former Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis.

Kerry has more than $3 million in his Senate election committee that can be rolled into a presidential effort, associates said.

Dean formed a presidential committee in May and has made it clear he will run.

Gephardt, the former House Democratic leader, is talking with supporters and advisers, and he is expected to start telling associates in the coming weeks of his decision. Those who have talked to him expect him to make his second run for president, after an unsuccessful bid in 1988.

People close to Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle say he should be considered a possible candidate, but many Democrats say they'd be surprised if he does run.

North Carolina Sen. John Edwards is considering his options and expects to make a decision after the Christmas holidays. Associates say he's leaning toward running but the freshman senator hasn't finally decided.

The big question for the Democrats is what Gore will do, and people close to him indicate he hasn't given a clear indication. Recent polls suggest Gore has an advantage over others in the field among Democrats overall, but has work to do among party activists who were as likely to pick Kerry as Gore, according to a recent Los Angeles Times poll. Gore acknowledged in a recent interview that he has to convince party insiders and the media that he can be a more effective candidate.

The other potential candidates dismiss any suggestion that Gore's decision will affect their own. When Edwards was asked last week whether he is waiting for Gore to make a decision, he responded: "No, absolutely not.''

The early presidential contests such as the Iowa caucuses, the New Hampshire primary in late January and the South Carolina primary in early February, are expected to narrow the competition quickly in 2004 and Democratic activists in those states say the race will be very competitive.