Delegates to next week's Democratic National Convention (searchalready have an idea about 2008 if presidential candidate John Kerry (searchshould lose this fall: They would favor Hillary Rodham Clinton (searchover John Edwards (searchas their next standardbearer.

An Associated Press survey found that the first-term New York senator is the choice of more than a quarter of the delegates while Edwards, recently tapped by Kerry to be his running mate, was favored by some 17 percent.

Clinton — former first lady, best-selling author, Democratic star and the politician Republicans vilify for fund-raising appeals — often was a top pick of Democrats in opinion polls prior to the 2004 primaries. In November 2002, the favorite candidates were Al Gore and Clinton, with all others in single digits.

Kerry emerged from the primary process as the Democratic candidate, and Edwards was the last major candidate to bow out. Kerry's choice of Edwards to be the vice presidential nominee raised the profile of the freshman North Carolina senator and pushed his name to the top of the 2008 list, if Kerry falters.

Among the more than 3,000 delegates interviewed, or roughly 70 percent of the 4,300-plus who will attend the four-day event beginning Monday in Boston, most were reticent to offer a favorite, optimistic about Kerry's chances on Nov. 2. Some 36 percent said "none" when asked whom they would like to see as the party's candidate in 2008.

Clinton was favored by 26 percent overall and Edwards 17 percent. Among women, Clinton led Edwards 34 percent to 16 percent. The breakdown among men was Clinton 22 percent, Edwards 21 percent.

"It's time. A lot of people tell me, 'She's a sure loser.' It's time for us to try," said Jennifer O'Donnell, 43, a delegate from Cincinnati, Ohio. "Women have got to try for that seat ... we still don't have the access."

Ruth Mandel, director of the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University, said Clinton's showing among this year's delegates is testament to her strength and potential leadership.

"It's about the fact that finally, in the year 2004, when most active leaders of the party are asked to name leaders of the future, a woman is at the top of the list," Mandel said.

New York-based Democratic operative Hank Sheinkopf said Clinton has a jump on Edwards for 2008 despite the publicity Edwards has received in this year's campaign. "The field could be wide open, but Hillary has an edge coming in," Sheinkopf said.

Edwards will have some three months on the presidential campaign trail, time in the public eye as well as an opportunity to hone his skills.

Lachlan McIntosh, 31, of Summerville, S.C., called Edwards "an up-and-coming star of the Democratic Party."

"He understands ordinary Americans and their plight," said McIntosh, one of more than 530 Democrats attending the convention as delegates for Edwards. The North Carolina senator was planning to send a letter to his delegates asking them to vote for Kerry on the first convention ballot.

Told of the AP delegate survey, Edwards' spokesman Mark Kornblau said, "Very interesting." He declined to comment further, adding, "We're looking forward to accepting the (vice presidential) nomination."

Clinton spokesman Philippe Reines had a similar response. "Senator Clinton will be working hard in 2008 to re-elect John Kerry and John Edwards," Reines said.

In the AP survey, Clinton was more popular than Edwards among delegates who were white as well as those who were black or Hispanic. She also was the choice of those who said they were in a union.

Initially, the New York senator did not have a speaking role at the convention, a Kerry campaign decision that drew criticism from several Democratic women. Within days, an intense lobbying campaign by Clinton backers forced the presidential candidate to ask if she would speak and introduce her husband, former President Clinton, on the opening night. She accepted the invitation.

About 2.5 percent of the delegates favored one-time candidate Howard Dean, the former front-runner. Several others were favored by about 1 percent each: Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio, who is keeping his long-shot candidacy alive; retired Gen. Wesley Clark; former Vice President Al Gore; and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson.

About 3 percent favored Kerry if he doesn't succeed this year. But several delegates tried to dismiss that notion.

"I have a definite preference (in 2008) — it's Kerry and Edwards," said Jim Alexander, 58, a Kerry delegate from Amarillo, Texas. "If they don't win this year, I hope by golly they try again."