The Iowa caucuses will be held in January 2004, a full year away, but observers in Iowa wouldn't be to blame if they thought the first battleground contest for the presidential nomination was to take place in the coming weeks in January 2003.

This weekend, several 2004 Democratic president hopefuls will be in town for the Linn County Democratic Party banquet. And several candidates have spent considerable time in the state, currying favors and trying to win over supporters a full year before the Iowa caucuses.

In the last year, many presidential hopefuls did a few favors in hopes of getting back what they give.

North Carolina Sen. John Edwards printed out 800,000 pieces of literature for local Iowa candidates, and put his name on the pamphlets so everyone knew who provided the service.

Edwards also donated 120 computers to the state Democratic Party.

Others donated time and personnel. Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean made 17 visits to Iowa last year, speaking at several fund-raisers for local Democratic candidates.

Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry lent a hand by lending bodies. He sent his own staffers to work on campaigns in Iowa.

Iowa's new Democratic Party chairman says the strategy is simple: presidential candidates are hoping to cash in these favors at next year's caucuses.

"Politics, in part, is about favors. It's also about high ideals, but in part it's about favors," said Gordon Fischer, state party chairman. "You got to be able to move through the state and help people out and hope that later down the line they'll help you out."

Some political observers in Iowa believe all the early activity is to blunt the advantage Missouri Rep. Dick Gephardt has in the state.

Gephardt won the Iowa caucus in 1988 and even though that was 15 years ago, he has kept coming back and still has a network of contacts in the state. He visited the state three times in 2002, once speaking at a fund-raiser for failed state Senate contender Chuck Gifford, a former United Auto Workers union leader who helped rally labor behind Gephardt in 1988.

The Des Moines Register last week called Gephardt the instant favorite in the Iowa race.

But there is still another year before the caucus, and that leaves a year to dole out favors before the balloting takes place in January 2004.