Even at this early date, Democratic contenders for the presidential nomination are beginning to work the state in preparation for next year's precinct caucuses that will test their strength.

For now at least, no one has the hearts and minds of Iowa's Democrats.

"It's wide open, that's for sure," said Iowa Democratic Chairman Gordon Fischer. "My own feeling not only is there is not a dominant candidate, there is not anyone who is ahead by a nose."

Iowa's precinct caucuses next January for those hoping to run against President Bush will be followed in rapid succession by primaries in New Hampshire and South Carolina.

A precise date for the caucuses hasn't been firmly set, since the process starts the quadrennial wrestling match between states eagerly seeking early attention. Jan. 19 has been mentioned as one potential date, but that's far from settled.

Unlike a traditional election, Iowa's caucuses require activists to show up for an entire evening for a neighborhood meeting where they will publicly declare their preference.

That requires a level of commitment far beyond a traditional election, and dictates that candidates must assemble backers one at a time in living room and coffee table meetings around the state. Fewer than 100,000 activists are likely to actually show up.

For the candidates, the precinct caucuses have less to do with results, and more to do with media perception - the expectations game. Candidates who do better than expected get heavy media attention moving into the early tests, and campaign money follows that attention.

And so the candidates are coming.

Missouri Rep. Richard Gephardt, North Carolina Sen. John Edwards, Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, former Vermont Sen. Howard Dean and Connecticut Sen. Joseph Lieberman have all sent signals they will seek the nomination.

Edwards, who donated $160,000 in computer gear to the state Democratic Party in the last campaign, is moving to put campaign staff in place in Iowa.

Kerry got high marks when he signed up former Iowa Democratic Chairman John Norris as his Iowa campaign manager.

Gephardt has moved aggressively to begin solidifying his organization, signing up Gov. Tom Vilsack's former campaign manager, John Lapp, to run his Iowa campaign.

Dean has not lagged in organization either, hiring Jeanie Murray to run his Iowa effort. She's a former executive director of the Iowa Democratic Party.

The pace quickened perceptibly since the mid-term election, and Dean, Kerry and Gephardt are scheduled to appear jointly at the season's first "cattle call," a county fund-raiser in Marion Saturday night.

Kerry courts activists earlier in the day at a breakfast in Des Moines, while Gephardt and Dean are speaking at a meeting of the Iowa Democratic Party's Central Committee.

Others are just beginning to sniff around.

Florida Sen. Bob Graham has sent word he's interested, and even former Colorado Sen. Gary Hart has scheduled an appearance in Iowa next week, saying he's weary of not being part of the political debate.