updated 10/13/2006 3:02:34 PM ET 2006-10-13T19:02:34

Why wait for the chance of a lifetime? Voters have yet to cast ballots for the midterm elections, yet presidential hopefuls are busy maneuvering for the national contest two years away.

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Using the early front-runners - Republican Sen. John McCain and Democratic Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton - as the standard, several potential candidates are hiring staff, lending help to 2006 candidates and mulling over a formal announcement long before the first presidential primary vote.

Republican Gov. George Pataki has opened offices in Iowa and New Hampshire. Democrat John Edwards has added early caucus state Nevada to his itinerary. Republican Gov. Mitt Romney has established a hydra-headed financing system.

Democratic Sen. Evan Bayh has gone back to school, placing photographs and biographies on Facebook.com, a popular college Web site.

Wide open race
"People are always moving around two years before an election, but they're moving around with more intensity this time," said Steve Elmendorf, who was chief of staff for Democrat Dick Gephardt's 2004 presidential campaign and later deputy campaign manager for John Kerry's presidential bid.

For the first time since 1952, neither a sitting president nor a vice president is running, creating a wide-open race for the White House. The most tangible sign of 2008 intensity has been the Internet work, especially among the Democrats.

"Everyone wants to be Howard Dean as Howard Dean was in 2003 in terms of raising money," Elmendorf said. "They think they can do that by communicating with and playing to that audience."

Strategists from both parties estimate the race could cost each nominee $500 million and many will opt out of the public financing system. That will require furious fundraising by successful candidates.

Dozens of potential candidates
The list on both sides is long and geographically diverse and covers each party's political spectrum. An all-encompassing lineup can push the total number of names to more than two dozen.

And the list is sure to shrink. On Thursday, former Virginia Gov. Mark Warner, a Democrat, announced that he would not forge ahead with a campaign despite extensive pre-presidential travel this year.

Early leaders
Just the thought of a McCain or Clinton presidential juggernaut is already influencing the announcement calendar. Several hopefuls, including Kerry, who also is up for re-election to the Senate in two years, may declare their 2008 candidacies immediately after next month's midterm elections.

McCain and Clinton, who have dominated early polling, have been trying to shape the field by projecting an aura of invincibility.

McCain, an Arizona Republican, has been announcing "leadership teams" composed of high-profile political figures in key presidential states. He's also maintaining a frenetic schedule to help this year's candidates with their fundraising and get-out-the-vote efforts.

Clinton, a New York Democrat, has raised more than $22 million for her re-election campaign this fall. If, as expected, she cruises to victory, she will be free to transfer her remaining cash into a presidential campaign committee.

Diverse strategies
Candidates are employing an array of techniques to meet the challenge.

Romney, who decided against seeking another term as Massachusetts governor, is not a federal officeholder like the senators. That frees him to establish political action committees in every state.

Romney has done so in early voting Iowa, New Hampshire, Michigan, South Carolina and Arizona, and recently he sought to cozy up to Jim Nussle, the GOP nominee for governor in Iowa, with a $500,000 donation.

"That's very effective," said Tom Rath, a veteran New Hampshire Republican operative who is advising the national political committee Romney is also allowed to maintain. "You give $500 to a guy running for sheriff or county commissioner, and they remember that."

Meanwhile, Edwards and others are visiting Nevada, after party elders agreed to hold caucuses there between the traditional presidential kickoff events, the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary.

Politics of the Internet
Candidates from both parties have also learned a lesson from Dean's 2004 grassroots campaign and are actively building their Internet presence with blogs and Web sites. Their aim is to promote not only fundraising but also support among political activists.

Facebook.com, popular on college and university campuses, is proving to be a potent tool for rallying support and identifying core campaign workers.

The candidates are employing time-tested campaign techniques as well, with all of them concentrating on Iowa and New Hampshire, donating money to local candidates in each state and placing operatives in key races to build early support.

Pataki and Romney have been frequent visitors to Iowa.

"This is really a time to listen, and I get a lot of perspective from the people of these states, so it's a chance to be seen and a chance to hear," Romney said after attending a fundraiser for New Hampshire Republicans at the farm of House Speaker Douglas Scamman.

For Democrats, Edwards and Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware have been the most frequent visitors to New Hampshire, although newcomers like Bayh and Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack have also been active on the trail.

"Someone who is in my position doesn't have the luxury of being able to wait, as some people might be able to because they are better known, or because they have money from another campaign that can be easily and legally rolled over into a new effort," Vilsack said during a recent stop in Shelburne, part of New Hampshire's North Country.

Vilsack added: "The good news is that I come in here and people are curious and interested in listening and do not have, I don't think, have any real preconceived notions about what I am or am not. The bad news is I come in here and have no preconceived notion and have to meet everybody in New Hampshire."

Copyright 2006 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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