Potential White House candidates are calling Iowa's top political operatives. Trips to the Midwest are on the schedule. Personal notes to the state's top Democrats and Republicans are in the mail.

In the realm of nonstop presidential politics, this is the slow time, when 2008 hopefuls are putting out early feelers in Iowa, a state critical to any White House aspirant. The calendar may show two years and 10 months to the next round of caucuses, but the courting continues.

Consider the experience of John Norris, who worked as a field director for 2004 Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry and has served as chief of staff to Gov. Tom Vilsack. Not long ago, Norris was at his home in Ames, playing with his 18-month-old twin sons, when the telephone rang. It was Kerry.

"He talked and talked and talked," Norris chuckled. "He wanted to tell me what his PAC (political action committee) was going to be doing in the next couple of years, things like that."

State Sen. Tom Courtney, a county Democratic chairman, had a similar experience a few months ago.

"It was a cold day and I was driving through the snow when my cell phone rang and they said, 'Can you hold for Senator Edwards?'" Courtney recalled. "He said, 'I'm calling around the state to a lot of people like you.'"

Sen. Kerry, D-Mass., and his running mate, former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards, are among the half-dozen names most often mentioned for the 2008 Democratic race, certain to be a fierce contest after the party's failure to beat Republican George W. Bush in 2000 and again last year.

The political courting is not just for Democrats. Republicans, facing the prospect of the first open nomination in eight years, are furiously wooing Iowans.

"The 2008 election is 1,350 days away, not that I'm paying attention," Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman told activists at a recent fund-raiser.

"The victory in 2004 was the result of planning in 2001 and 2002 and 2003. It's all going to start here," he said.

Several potential GOP contenders have taken that advice to heart.

In January, when Iowa Senate Republican leader Stewart Iverson found himself in Washington without a seat for the inaugural parade, New York Gov. George Pataki's staff produced tickets to a parade-watching party and an invitation to lunch.

"Those tickets came right away," Iverson said.

Des Moines lawyer Doug Gross, the Republican gubernatorial nominee in 2002, has received a phone call and a note from Gov. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts, who has possible designs on the Oval Office.

"It's starting all over again," Gross said.

Potential presidential candidates have plenty of reasons to travel to Iowa, without calling attention to the obvious political explanation.

Vilsack has decided not to seek a third term as governor, leaving a wide-open race to replace him. He also is among those mentioned for the White House in 2008.

Edwards has scheduled a two-day trip to the state this week and plans to raise money for Rep. Leonard Boswell, who is seeking a sixth term in the House.

Edwards has agreed to an interview with Iowa Public Television, which will be broadcast statewide, and plans to meet with the Des Moines Register's editorial board.

"It never stops," sighed Courtney, the state senator. "I asked (Edwards) about it, but he said it was too soon to think about that. He wouldn't be making these calls unless he was running for president."

Publisher Steve Forbes, who twice sought the Republican nomination, is speaking to an anti-tax group in Des Moines a couple of weeks later.

Iowa's caucuses and New Hampshire's primary are the first contests to determine a party's nominee, although the Democrats have a special commission examining the campaign calendar and the states' pre-eminence.

This quadrennial debate over the role of the two rural states in the nomination process usually ends without an alternative, and Iowa and New Hampshire still in the top spots.

Both states have political cultures that favor retail campaigning and candidates have spent months — if not years — currying favor with important activists.

Romney, the Massachusetts governor, made a swing through the state before the 2004 election, stumping for Bush but nurturing some ties of his own.

"I had a chance to talk to him for about a half an hour, and he's an interesting guy," said Iverson, the state Senate GOP leader. "I assume he's running for president."

Drake University political scientist Dennis Goldford said the intensity is high, particularly with Vice President Dick Cheney saying he has no plans to run for president.

"It started on Nov. 3," Goldford said. "It really is wide open."