Notwithstanding her star power, or the fact that she can raise money and build an organization, some political experts say the drop-dead date has already passed for Sen. Hillary Clinton (search) to seek the Democratic presidential nomination in 2004.

Clinton's husband, the former president, a relative unknown at the time, officially launched his campaign on Oct. 4, 1991, though he had been campaigning in key states and building a political base before then. Still, since Bill Clinton's late entry, the date has been a guidepost for would-be candidates, said Democratic Party spokeswoman Deborah DeShong. 

Oct. 4 “was the 12th anniversary of Bill Clinton running, so most people have seen that date as a benchmark as the latest date a candidate could get in the race to win,” DeShong said.

Hillary Clinton has regularly and clearly denied an interest in running in the 2004 election, but that has not stopped rumors from circulating, or some Democrats from hoping the New York senator makes a go of it.

But success in a presidential contest is heavily dependent on grassroots organization and early campaigning. Florida Sen. Bob Graham (search ) dropped out of the race last week, saying that his late decision to explore a bid — he announced his intent to run in March — and consequent inability to raise enough funds, created an insurmountable disadvantage.

Some of the candidates in the Democratic field have been campaigning in New Hampshire and Iowa for over a year. But Clinton has clearly not been doing that.

“Conventional wisdom is sometimes wrong, but we do have a process that favors and indeed has prohibitively favored front-runners who start early, raise money and build organizations in the early states,” said Emmett H. Buell, professor of political science at Denison University (search ), who added that Clinton is running out of time to line up activists in New Hampshire and Iowa.

Buell acknowledged that Clinton could excite some of the Democratic faithful and generate defections, but it would likely be too late for her to become a credible candidate.

“She hasn’t done the groundwork. She’s probably not ready for a presidential campaign, and if she got out there and performed badly it would devastate any chance for her in the future,” he said.

“People are lining up their commitments. The longer it goes on, the harder it would be to disengage people,” said Donald Robinson, professor of government at Smith College (search).

Robinson does not agree, however, that it's too late for Clinton to enter the contest.

Calling the Oct. 4 date “a lot of monkey business,” Robinson said presidential candidate Howard Dean has demonstrated new ways to raise money. Clinton's popularity in the party could make fund-raising, a key indicator of a candidate's strength, a non-issue for her.

Aside from fund-raising and organization, the party's nominating structure could be a challenge.

Before the 1972 election, fewer delegates were awarded through primaries and more were available at the convention from Democratic Party insiders. As a result, Hubert Humphrey won the nomination in 1968 without winning a single primary. That process has since changed, and it is now impossible for a candidate to win without racking up delegates from the primaries, which are compressed into a relatively short period.

There is no deadline to be on the ballot in the Iowa caucus, but for many other states the deadlines are rapidly approaching. Missouri’s filing period ends Nov. 18. New Hampshire’s ends Nov. 21. By Jan. 3, it would be too late to get on the ballots in Michigan, New Mexico, Oklahoma, South Carolina and a dozen other states.

“It’s legally practically impossible for anybody, certainly after the turn of the year, to come in and win,” Robinson said.

“Theoretically, a candidate could win a nomination without running in New Hampshire, but it is hard to see how such a route would lead to the White House,” said John J. Pitney Jr., professor of government at Claremont McKenna College (search).

With a tightly compressed primary calendar, early contests are vital. In recent elections, the party’s candidate has been decided as a result of the first few primaries, with the rest of them acting as a sort of a victory tour. In the last presidential election, Sen. John McCain (search), R-Ariz., and former Sen. Bill Bradley (search ), D-N.J., both dropped out on March 9.

Under current rules, a deadlocked convention is still possible, and the wide Democratic field without a clear front-runner improves the odds. But commentators regard a deadlock as an extremely unlikely scenario and say a front-runner emerging relatively early from among the current candidates is more probable.

Experts say the longer Clinton denies she will make a bid, the sooner Democrats are going to have to accept her decision.