He does not come armed with posies and poetry, but when it comes to courting Democratic activists, John Edwards is a determined suitor.
The former North Carolina senator and 2004 presidential running mate never fails to propose when he calls Jim Demers — and he calls often.
"I don’t think there’s ever been a time I’ve talked to him when he hasn’t concluded by point-blank asking if I’ll sign on to his team," said Demers, a Democratic activist in New Hampshire.
Even before the votes were cold in the November election, the ritual courting between potential presidential candidates and Democratic and Republican activists in early primary and caucus states was well under way in anticipation of the 2008 presidential election.
The pairing of White House wannabes with grass-roots activists and local political leaders — a mating dance known in political parlance as the "ground game" — has a serious purpose. Often a relative handful of activists and party regulars determines the outcome of the early primaries and caucuses, which in turn can either launch or torpedo a presidential bid.
Frequently it is the candidates with the best field operations who triumph. Successful field operations rely on influential and skillful local activists to turn out supporters.
The current mating dance has gotten off to an especially early start, a reflection of the wide-open nature of the 2008 presidential race. It will be the first time since 1928 that there is neither a sitting president nor vice president in the early mix of potential candidates.
President Bush, in his second term, is not eligible to run again. Vice President Dick Cheney has said he will not be a candidate.
Already, more than two dozen leading figures in both parties have taken early steps toward launching a presidential bid or have been openly discussed as potential candidates.
There are perceived front-runners in both parties — Democratic Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York and Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona — but neither is seen as having an unassailable advantage.
The wide-open nature of the race is underscored by the lengthy list of Democrats who have come courting Demers. In addition to Edwards, they include Sens. Evan Bayh of Indiana, Joe Biden of Delaware, John Kerry of Massachusetts, and Barack Obama of Illinois, and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson. Except for Obama, Demers has met them all, but no one has won him over yet.
"I’m totally uncommitted," said Demers, who led Dick Gephardt’s 2004 presidential campaign in the Granite State. "I guess I’m one of those who doesn’t expect to make decision until I’ve seen all of them more."
Like belles at a ball, some activists like to take their time looking over the field of potential suitors. For others, the attraction is more immediate.
The defining moment for Iowa Republican Steve Sukup came when GOP Gov. George Pataki of New York took time to visit an elementary school in Clear Lake, Iowa, more than a year ago to deliver a flag to children who had raised money to help victims of the 2001 terrorist attacks.
Pataki has gotten attention in Iowa for his focus on retail politics — the handshaking-backslapping-local fundraising required to win over voters in a less populated, rural state.
"He knows what it takes to get it done at the grass-roots level," said Sukup, a former state legislator who unsuccessfully sought the GOP gubernatorial nomination a few years back.
Though the private wooing of activists is intense, many potential candidates do not like to appear too eager in public.
Not so, Biden. Riding in a convertible during the Milford, N.H., Labor Day parade (and required by parade rules to stay in the car), he shouted out to the crowds as he passed by, "I’m one of the 100 guys running for president!"
Yes, candidates are expected to have both substance and cunning, but style counts, too. Woe be the candidate who leaves the impression of being better than he — or she — ought to be.
Hence the grumbling recently at the swank Wakonda Club in Des Moines, Iowa, when former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s motorcade of three shiny sport utility vehicles came screeching up the circular driveway ahead of a line of waiting cars. The potential GOP contender was escorted inside, safe from the hoi polloi, within a cocoon of aides and security guards.
Indeed, few events are seen as too humble to be overlooked.
Republican Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas has been attending church picnics across Iowa, courting the party’s conservative Christian base. Bayh shared picnic fare with Democrats running for county sheriff and county supervisor.
Supporters of Pataki and Gov. Mitt Romney, R-Mass., said they are organizing for the first major test of the 2008 race, a high-profile Republican straw poll planned for next summer in Iowa.
"That tests the organization to see if there is a passion for the candidate," Sukup said. "You need to get people out for the straw poll."
GOP strategist Dave Carney gives the organizing edge in New Hampshire to McCain, who also has assembled advisory committees of supporters in both Iowa and New Hampshire.
"He has a lot of people in place, and a lot of friendships that are going to pay off," Carney said.
Democrats have been equally busy, though two of the leading potential candidates — Clinton and Obama — do not yet have organizations on the ground in either state. Both have generated buzz with appearances in Iowa and both have avoided New Hampshire.
Other Democrats have been far less shy.
Probably the most visible candidate in Iowa is the state’s governor, Tom Vilsack. He has declared his candidacy, opened a campaign office and put staff in place.
Vilsack and Bayh got high marks for aiding legislative candidates in a campaign that saw Democrats take over both chambers of the Iowa Legislature. Bayh sent staffers who worked on local campaigns, earning himself some points.
"He’s building kind of a grass-roots infrastructure from the boots up," said Iowa state Rep. Janet Petersen, a Democrat who remains officially neutral though she is friendly to the Bayh effort.
In New Hampshire, support from potential presidential candidates helped Democrats retain the governor’s office, win two congressional seats and take over both legislative chambers. Bayh, Biden, Kerry, Connecticut Sen. Chris Dodd and retired Army Gen. Wesley Clark all have visited the state in the past month.
On the Republican side, Pataki, McCain, Giuliani, and Sen. Bill Frist of Tennessee all visited in recent weeks. Romney, who has a weekend home in New Hampshire, has been spending lots of time in the state.
Democratic analyst Joe Keefe said potential presidential contenders lavished support on New Hampshire’s state senate candidates in particular.
"Those state senators were the beneficiary of almost a bidding war among presidential candidates to see who could help them more," he said.
Associated Press writer Mike Glover reported from Des Moines, Iowa.