MANCHESTER, N.H. – In the course of three short months, the political system has come full circle: a presidential campaign, an inauguration, a State of the Union address and now this — another presidential race.
A dozen or so ambitious Republicans and Democrats already are warming up for 2008.
Former Democratic vice presidential nominee John Edwards (search) is taking on poverty and showing off a new stump speech. Republican Gov. Mitt Romney (search) of Massachusetts has donated more than $250,000 to GOP causes, collecting political IOUs while planning visits to early voting states. Democratic Sen. Evan Bayh (search) of Indiana is hiring veteran operatives and talking up donors.
No list could be made without mentioning Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (search), D-N.Y., and Sen. John McCain (search), R-Ariz. — two political Goliaths who cannot make a move without being accused of presidential posturing.
"Many, many people on both sides will spend the next couple of years putting themselves in a position so they can decide whether or not to run," Bayh adviser Anita Dunn said.
"If two years from now, you're just getting started on building a political team, two things will happen: All the top talent will be gone and, more importantly, you'll start out with a team that's not cohesive," she said.
Wasting no time, Bayh has begun to put together a presidential-style political team. It includes Paul Maslin, pollster for Howard Dean's failed presidential bid, and Steve Bouchard, a leading organizer in New Hampshire, traditionally the site of the first presidential primary.
Edwards was in the Granite State on Saturday to speak about his fledgling Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity. The North Carolina-based program will give Edwards a public platform and a cause, two things he will need to remain politically viable after leaving the Senate last month.
While saying he has not decided whether to seek the presidency, Edwards sounded like a man who is putting a lot of thought into what makes voters tick.
"People are looking for strength and conviction, a core set of beliefs that we stand behind," he said in an interview previewing his speech to Democratic activists.
"I just believe that what the American people need in their leaders is to know where they stand. They may not know the nuance of the policy, but they know where that person wants to take the country," Edwards said.
Asked if President Bush passed that gut-check test with voters, Edwards paused before answering. "I don't think that's true, but there are a lot of people who do," he said.
Edwards did not want to say why his former running mate, Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, is faulted for lacking conviction and vision. "I think that's a complicated question," Edwards said. "Others can respond to that. I actually think John Kerry was a very good man and would have made a very good president."
Kerry may still want to be president, a prospect that could complicate Edwards' aspirations.
After falling 19 electoral votes short of the White House, Kerry quickly regrouped to make a trip to Iraq, ship two mass e-mails to 2004 supporters and deliver a health care speech that countered Bush on the issue.
Advisers say Kerry does not need to campaign as early as other potential candidates because of his high profile and big bank account. They reject criticism from fellow Democrats who accuse Kerry of running a poor campaign that froze out some of the party's top talent.
Many Democrats predict that Clinton will be the early front-runner for the nomination should she decide to run. The former first lady has begun to talk more frequently in public about her faith and, like Edwards, casts the fight against poverty as a moral cause.
Her recent speech on abortion broke no new ground, but nonetheless was dissected for signs that Clinton is moderating her views.
Behind the scenes, her advisers are gearing up for her 2006 re-election campaign, which they hope is a trial run for a presidential race.
The list of Democratic hopefuls goes on.
Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack's advisers plan to meet this month to begin charting his course to a potential bid.
New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson has told party leaders he will run.
Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware skipped last year's race, but recently told a well-wisher, "I think next time I will" run.
As for the Republicans, McCain is getting encouragement from party leaders who opposed his 2000 campaign against Bush. One of his political advisers, John Weaver, cornered GOP activists at last month's Republican National Committee meeting.
"I don't think he's thinking of a presidential race," Weaver said. "If he is, he's not sharing it with me and (Senate chief of staff Mark) Salter."
Sen. George Allen of Virginia shook up his staff to get ready for a potential run. Indeed, the Senate is filled with Republicans who might be president, including Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee, Chuck Hagel of Nebraska and Sam Brownback of Kansas.
New York Gov. George Pataki and former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani want a crack at the big prize. Supporters of California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger hope to amend the Constitution in time for the Austrian native to seek the presidency.
And then there's Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who stood out by bowing out. "I'm not going to run for president in 2008," he said in October, just weeks before the 2008 campaign began.