KEENE, N.H. - It was no coincidence, Cheshire County Commissioner Greg Martin thought, when Rep. Richard A. Gephardt phoned him at home the other night to chat about nothing in particular.
The call came just as Martin was arranging a get-together with local voters for North Carolina Sen. John Edwards, a potential rival to the House minority leader in the 2004 Democratic presidential primary.
"It's even unusual for us, this far out" from Election Day, for candidates to already be competing so aggressively, says Martin, a party activist in the southwest corner of New Hampshire, a state accustomed to being wooed early and often.
The intense competition is a somewhat surprising, but perhaps inevitable, result of recent changes to the primary calendar. Two years from today, many strategists believe, the Democratic race will be over.
"The nomination likely will be won in 2003," says Joe Keefe of Manchester, a former state party chairman. Because Iowa and New Hampshire will stage the earliest delegate tests in January 2004, "somebody's going to have to surge before Christmas of 2003."
Another reason things are heating up: The field is wide open.
Former Vice President Al Gore announced in a weekend speech that he intended to "rejoin the national debate." He said he didn't know whether he would run again, but if he does, he could face an uphill struggle.
Gore made an impromptu visit here in the fall that struck one of those he met with as "a little bit" odd and another as downright "bizarre." Gore called about a dozen supporters out of the blue to say he was passing through Keene in a rented car and to invite them to lunch that day.
Karen Fitzpatrick, who was there, says no one came away with a clear sense of Gore's purpose or plans. Her support for another Gore campaign, she adds, "is not a given right now."
"Most of the Gore people I know are looking elsewhere at this point," says Keefe, a top Gore adviser in the state last time.
As many as a dozen prominent Democrats have signaled an interest in running. And if the first foray here by one of the more intriguing aspirants - Edwards - is any indication, neither snow nor sleet nor President Bush's 80 percent job approval ratings will stay them from the pursuit of their self-appointed rounds.
Slight of build, with a mop of light brown hair and boyish good looks, Edwards is a study in the new politics of buzz. Barely halfway through his first term in public office and still an unknown, the North Carolinian is clearly in a hurry to get to the top.
He is introduced to audiences as one of the Democrats' "fastest-rising stars," though no clear justification is given for that accolade. His major political accomplishment is getting passed over for the 2000 vice presidential nomination. (He made the short list of possible running mates largely at the urging of Gore's media consultant, Bob Shrum, who is advising Edwards.)
What Edwards does have in abundance is personality. It doesn't hurt that he is photogenic or that he was once called the "sexiest politician" in America by People magazine, a title he is unlikely to live down, even if he wants to.
A persuasive speaker who earned tens of millions as a personal injury lawyer, Edwards pumped $6 million of his own money into unseating Republican Sen. Lauch Faircloth in 1998. He may need to tap his wealth again to come up with the estimated $15 million to $20 million needed to compete in the '04 race.
Insiders, by the peculiar alchemy of politics, have promoted him to the first tier in the nascent Democratic contest. Four others in that category, Gephardt, Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle and Sens. John Kerry of Massachusetts and Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut, have recently given policy speeches to define themselves and signal interest in the race. (Other, long-shot possibilities: Govs. Howard Dean of Vermont, Tom Vilsack of Iowa, Roy Barnes of Georgia and Gray Davis of California; Sens. Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware and Christopher J. Dodd of Connecticut; and former Sen. Bill Bradley.)
Edwards has yet to flesh out positions in great detail. But as he tested the Granite State's icy waters over the weekend, a 14-passenger van was needed to accommodate the unusually large number of reporters following him across the glittering white landscape.
His prowess as a campaigner and his syrupy Southern accent have led some to compare him to Bill Clinton, and the former president is said to have encouraged him to run. Edwards told reporters Saturday that Clinton is "always very encouraging" but declined to divulge any private advice.
He has adopted Clinton's policies on the economy and on issues such as Social Security reform. "He sold the Clinton economic plan better than Gore did," says Dayton Duncan, a New Hampshire campaign veteran who came to the sunken living room of Ray and Karen Fitzgerald's house to take the newcomer's measure and left impressed.
The 48-year-old senator is selling himself as a reform-minded outsider, apparently hoping to fill a vacant niche on the Democratic side for an insurgent candidate. The name he mentioned most often, though, was that of a Republican: Sen. John McCain, whose independent supporters could be up for grabs next time.
Edwards drew applause with his pledge to reject campaign contributions from Washington lobbyists and political action committees (though he recently formed a PAC, run by a former top aide to former Nebraska Sen. Bob Kerrey, which has raised more than $700,000 to finance his national political operation).
The opening argument of Edwards' presidential candidacy as delivered here has a pronounced populist edge. He says he'll fight the powerful interests in Washington on behalf of working-class Americans like the ones, dressed in overalls "with grease on their faces and lint in their hair," who toiled at the textile mill where his father was a supervisor. "That's what this is all about," he says.
Edwards tells reporters he hasn't made up his mind to run, but Elliot Lasky, a Nashua optometrist, didn't seem to have any doubt about what he was hearing.
"I'm looking for somebody who really wants it, who has the burning in the gut to go after this thing," Lasky says. "He showed passion. He's got the fire."