The campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination will pit the tortoises against the hares, three patient plodders hoping to overtake three confident sprinters after the race's first lap.
Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, Rep. Dick Gephardt of Missouri and former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean are the pacesetters. Following the traditional nomination path, they are seeking victories Jan. 19 in Iowa or eight days later in New Hampshire to build momentum for the first multistate showdown Feb. 3.
Sens. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, John Edwards of North Carolina and Bob Graham of Florida are betting their candidacies on a largely untested theory — that they can wait until Feb. 3 or beyond for their first victories.
They will need a lot of money and a bit of luck to pull it off. At least one of the slow-starters, Edwards, may air the campaign's first ads in later summer or early fall to jump-start his bid.
"Scenarios for starting later just never succeed," said Steve Murphy, Gephardt's campaign director.
Eight months before the first vote is cast, no front-runner has emerged in a campaign that may last just six weeks in early 2004, according to Democrats in key states and the candidates' own strategists.
The winner takes on President Bush in the fall of 2004.
After the Feb. 3 elections in Arizona, South Carolina, Delaware, Missouri, New Mexico and Oklahoma, eight more states plus the District of Columbia select delegates in the next three weeks.
Then comes Super Tuesday on March 2, when California, New York and at least seven other states choose delegates. After that big day, more than half of the 2,161 delegates needed for the nomination will have been awarded.
"Every serious candidate is studying the primary election calendar and trying to make the math work for them," said Dennis Goldford, professor of political science at Iowa's Drake University. "It can only work for one of them."
A look at the candidates:
KERRY: The four-term senator is casting himself as the front-runner. But he is not the candidate leading in national polls (Lieberman), fund raising (Edwards) or even in experience as a presidential candidate (Gephardt).
Kerry hopes to knock Gephardt from the race in Iowa and storm into New Hampshire, a state that shares a media market with the senator's native Massachusetts. From there, Kerry hopes to win the nomination wire-to-wire without using any of his wife's fortune.
He will need Teresa Heinz Kerry's money in the general election against Bush, who expects to raise $200 million or more.
DEAN: The physician-turned-politician is slightly trailing Kerry in New Hampshire polls and has built an organization in Iowa second only to Gephardt. But he has relatively little money or support from traditional corners of the party.
The former governor needs to catch fire in Iowa and New Hampshire, then use that momentum to raise money as he goes. It is a page from the 1984 playbook of Gary Hart but with a twist: Dean is using the Internet to court campaign workers and donors.
He hopes the compressed primary calendar plays to his favor, giving more established rivals little time to recover if he surprises them early.
GEPHARDT: The former House minority leader revitalized his campaign with an ambitious health care plan. He wants the two New England candidates, Dean and Kerry, to siphon votes from each other while he plies his blue-collar populist message in Iowa and New Hampshire.
He won Iowa in 1988 but lost the nomination. If he loses the caucuses this time, Gephardt's candidacy is over.
A veteran campaigner, he meets 50 to 70 Iowans at a time, with a special emphasis on rural voters largely ignored by the other campaigns.
After Iowa, Gephardt has his eye on anti-trade, union and black votes in places such as South Carolina and Michigan. Edwards is competing in the same states with the same message.
EDWARDS: The first-term senator and wealthy former trial lawyer stumbled after posting impressive fund-raising numbers in March. But he has announced several new policies, including a $7 billion plan for rural America.
Edwards hopes Gephardt gets knocked out in Iowa, giving him room to make a populist pitch in the Feb. 3 races. He needs to win outside his native South Carolina (birthplace Seneca, S.C.) or he will be limping into Michigan's Feb. 7 primary.
LIEBERMAN: He is leading in national polls, largely because of his role as then-Vice President Al Gore's running mate in 2000.
Lieberman needs to improve his fund raising so he can run a national campaign while Kerry, Dean and Gephardt beat each other up early on. His campaign director, Craig Smith, ran the political operation of the last Democrat who successfully ran as a moderate: Bill Clinton.
Lieberman must finish in the top three in Iowa or New Hampshire, then pick up victories Feb. 3 to slow whoever comes steaming out of New Hampshire.
Michigan on Feb. 7 is not a good state for Lieberman; neither is Maine a day later. Ties to state workers in Virginia and Gore supporters in Tennessee, plus Lieberman's support of statehood in the District of Columbia, might help Feb. 10.
GRAHAM: The late-starting former Florida governor has led Democrats in criticizing Bush's efforts against terrorism.
Graham will compare himself to centrist Democratic governors in Oklahoma and Arizona on Feb. 3. Wisconsin has a newly elected Democratic governor, and its Feb. 17 stand-alone primary could winnow the field before Super Tuesday.
The three remaining candidates — former Illinois Sen. Carol Moseley Braun, Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio and Al Sharpton — are considered long shots for the party's nomination.