After months of grand rhetoric, endless fundraising and heavy campaigning, the 2008 presidential race kicks into even higher gear this week at the start of a four-month sprint to the first votes.

A crowded pack of Republican candidates gains a new contender, former senator and Hollywood actor Fred Thompson, as a hard-charging Democratic field hunts for ways to bring down the front-runner, Sen. Hillary Clinton of New York.

The Labor Day holiday weekend, the traditional kick-off for U.S. general election races, opens a campaign stage when voters begin to pay more attention to politics and candidates begin to sharpen their message and throw more elbows at rivals.

“It’s about to get a lot louder, a lot crazier and a lot nastier from all quarters,” said Republican consultant Dan Schnur.

The contenders for the November 2008 election enter a September stretch featuring four debates, the resumption of congressional debate on Iraq and a flurry of hearings and reports on the war. The month ends with another crucial deadline for each campaign to report its financial health.

And with Iowa likely to move its kick-off nominating contest to at least early January — and perhaps even December — to stay ahead of other states pushing their contests earlier, the intensity will edge higher as the days grow shorter.

“Now is the time when the money starts to be spent, staff starts to grow and you see more, more, more activity,” said Democratic consultant Jenny Backus.

The Democratic presidential contenders have been mostly running in place since January, with Clinton holding a steady lead in opinion polls over top rivals Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois, John Edwards, the 2004 vice presidential nominee, and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson.

The Republican race has seen more shifts, with the fall of Arizona Sen. John McCain and the rise of former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney into first place in polls in the early voting states of Iowa and New Hampshire.

Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani has maintained a steady lead over the Republican field in national polls despite conservative dissatisfaction with his views on some social issues, like his support for abortion rights.


The uneasiness about the top Republican contenders among conservatives opened the door for the run by Thompson, who hopes to fill the void on the right. He formally launches his campaign on Thursday.

Conservative former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee hopes to move up in the polls after a surprise second at the Iowa straw poll, intensifying the battle for the party’s base supporters.

Things can change quickly once voters begin to take a serious look at the race, as Democrat Howard Dean’s 2004 collapse proved. Dean went from a heavy favorite to an also-ran in the span of three weeks in Iowa.

“Many voters in both parties have not made up their minds, so there is still plenty of opportunity,” said Dante Scala, a political analyst at the University of New Hampshire.

“The Republican race is particularly fluid. If Thompson plays his cards right and challenges for those conservative votes, it could be anybody’s race,” he said.

Schnur said the parties have reversed their usual campaign roles as Republicans grapple with Bush’s low approval ratings and public unhappiness with the party’s leadership.

“Republicans are usually the ones with a nice hierarchy and the Democrats are the ones scrambling for order, but this year it’s precisely the reverse,” he said.

“Hillary Clinton is as strong an establishment candidate as George Bush ever was, and there are three, four maybe five Republicans who can make a plausible case at having a shot.”

While Clinton has held a steady national lead among Democrats, she is embroiled in a close three-way battle in Iowa with Edwards and Obama.

Obama, a first-term senator who attracted an impressive 258,000 donors in the first six months of the year, has built strong field operations in the early states but still must overcome doubts about his experience, Backus said.

“Hillary is running on toughness and inevitability, and if you’re running on the inevitability of winning, you’ve got to win,” she said. “She has put a lot of pressure on herself. She needs to set the standard and win in Iowa.”

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