The 2004 presidential race is starting with a cross-country dash for cash, as Democratic hopefuls hold fund-raisers, work the phones and tap the Internet to amass the tens of millions of dollars needed to compete.

One of their first stops is cash-rich California. Sens. John Kerry and John Edwards, for example, each plotted three early and identical stops in the Democratic stronghold: San Francisco, Los Angeles and San Diego.

But with half a dozen Democrats already declared as candidates, the search is quickly spreading nationwide.

"The first primary is money," said Kerry, of Massachusetts. Whenever he speaks at a podium he prefers that it has a sign promoting his fund-raising Web site.

Kerry entered the Democratic race last month and is jump-starting his effort with $2.5 million left from his 2002 Senate campaign.

Others, like Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, who is trying to build name recognition outside the Northeast, have yet to break the $1 million mark.

"It's an obvious challenge for us because he's a governor, so he doesn't have the national network," Dean spokeswoman Kate O'Connor said. "But the more people hear his message, the better we're going to do, and that's what we've found."

The race to collect donations for the Democratic primaries is being done in the shadow of President Bush's expected re-election bid.

Already the beneficiary of a campaign network that raised a record $100 million in 2000, Bush faces no opposition for the GOP nomination. Absent a late challenger, he will have the luxury of spending all his money to position himself against Democrats.

Democratic candidates must decide whether to skip public financing and the accompanying spending limits during the primaries, as Bush successfully did in 2000 and is expected to do in 2004.

With individual contribution limits doubling to $2,000 per election under the new campaign finance law, Bush could easily double his 2000 total if he doesn't have to adhere to spending limits.

Kerry already has held fund-raisers in five states, Washington and Puerto Rico over the past month and planned events this week in California.

Edwards, the North Carolina senator, followed his New Year's week entry into the Democratic race with a weekend of fund raising close to home.

Edwards held two fund-raisers in Raleigh the Saturday night after his announcement, one a low-dollar event at a restaurant that was open to the press, the other a $1,000-per-person, closed event at the home of a former ambassador.

Edwards then swept through other Southern cities, including New Orleans, Nashville and Atlanta. He also tapped donors in California and Oregon last weekend.

Dean, who last year became the first candidate to officially enter the Democratic race, held two events in Boston last month that together raised more than $100,000, and had fund-raising stops in Vermont and New York City. He held two fund-raisers in Washington on Sunday night and planned another in Atlanta this week.

Dean is among those seeking a financial boost from the Internet. Dean is beefing up his Web site, and has seen donations rise after appearances on television talk shows, O'Connor said.

Connecticut Sen. Joseph Lieberman's 2004 campaign Web site went up shortly after he announced his entry into the race Monday, and drew at least 100 contributions by day's end, spokesman Dan Gerstein said. In all, $5,000 came in during the first 24 hours after Lieberman's announcement.

Lieberman, Al Gore's Democratic running mate in 2000, started phoning prospective donors and fund-raisers before announcing his candidacy, Gerstein said. Lieberman planned a fund-raiser Wednesday in New York and one in the nation's capital Sunday.

Missouri Rep. Dick Gephardt, the lone announced candidate who has run for president before, also plans to raise money aggressively over the next few months. His fund-raising trips will include stops in California, Texas, Florida, Chicago, Boston, New York City, Washington, Denver and Las Vegas, an aide said.

Gephardt is transferring about $2.5 million left from his House campaign to his presidential effort, and plans to begin Internet and direct-mail fund raising.

The Rev. Al Sharpton, a civil rights activist who has never held public office, announced two weeks ago that he will form a presidential exploratory committee and said he expects to file papers with the Federal Election Commission on Jan. 21.

Aides to the Democratic hopefuls declined to say how much they've raised so far. Reports due at the FEC in coming weeks will provide the first look at their fund-raising.