The Democratic race for president in 2004 is heating up early as candidates announce they will run, select staffers and plan their campaigns.

"This is probably earlier than ever before, but it is the beginning of the campaign in earnest," said Al From, founder and chief executive of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council.

Veteran political activists say the process is moving fast because Democrats know they're facing a popular president in wartime who will have a big financial advantage. The Democrats also will have a fast-moving presidential contest calendar, starting about a year from now with the Iowa caucuses.

"We're starting to get a pretty good sense of what the field is going to look like," said Steve Rosenthal, outgoing political director at the AFL-CIO. Organized labor, he said, will be "interested to hear what they're going to be talking about. Democrats seemed to be missing in action in 2002."

Sens. John Edwards of North Carolina and John Kerry of Massachusetts have formed presidential exploratory committees, along with Missouri Rep. Dick Gephardt and Vermont Gov. Howard Dean. Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman is expected to join the race Monday and the Rev. Al Sharpton of New York says he will join later this month.

Florida Sen. Bob Graham is taking a serious look at a run, and Delaware Sen. Joe Biden is thinking it over. Retired Gen. Wesley Clark has been mentioned as a possible candidate, but said again Thursday he's not a candidate for president and not a member of a political party.

"I'm a concerned American who believes the nation needs to be engaged in a dialogue and I'm just happy to be part of it," Clark said.

Another Democrat, Gary Hart, said Thursday he is thinking of entering the race. The former Colorado senator, who ran twice in the 1980s, said he wants to help shape the national debate on homeland security, foreign affairs and the economy. He is planning speeches during the next two months on those topics, including a visit to Iowa on Jan. 23.

In 1988, Hart was leading the pack for the Democratic nomination, but dropped out after he was photographed aboard the yacht "Monkey Business" with model Donna Rice seated on his lap. Hart said Thursday he doesn't know how he will answer questions about the episode if he decides to run again.

"Let's wait and see," said Hart, who remains married to his wife of 44 years, Lee. "Maybe it won't come up."

As more Democrats consider entering the race, those who already have joined are quickly assembling campaign staffs.

Here's a look at the developing campaign organizations of the four Democrats already in the race, according to associates:

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HOWARD DEAN: The Dean campaign has Rick Ridder as campaign manager. Ridder is a veteran political consultant who once worked with Hart. Former Democratic National Committee Chairman Steve Grossman of Boston will be Dean's finance chairman and Jeani Murray will head his efforts in Iowa.

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JOHN KERRY: The Kerry campaign has a veteran staff led by Jim Jordan, former executive director of the Senate Campaign Committee, as well as political consultant Jill Alper and advertising consultant Jim Margolis. Many of Kerry's senior advisers will be from the Boston area, including Michael Whouley, John Sasso and campaign treasurer Robert Farmer. The political director is Luis Navarro, who was political director of the labor group Service Employees International Union.

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JOHN EDWARDS: The Edwards campaign will include Democratic consultant Nick Baldick of Washington, North Carolina attorney Ed Turlington, consultant Steve Jarding as a political adviser and Eileen Kotecki as a key figure with the campaign's finances. Veteran Democratic activist Rob Tully plans to help Edwards in Iowa. Former state lawmaker Caroline McCarley will be helping him in New Hampshire.

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DICK GEPHARDT: The Gephardt campaign manager is Steve Murphy, who ran Iowa for Gephardt in 1988. Steve Elmendorf and David Plouffe will have leading roles as advisers and political consultants Bill Carrick and Tom O'Donnell will be involved. The treasurer is S. Lee Kling, a St. Louis businessman. Gephardt is relying on a team of veterans, many of whom have been with him for a decade.