During the pre-primary period--the year following the mid-term elections--the field of presidential candidates takes shape, the race for money and campaign talent unfolds, and differences on issues between the candidates begin to crystallize.
A proliferation of debates and forums

Launch
By the end of February 2003, the Democratic field looked largely set.  Gov. Howard Dean of Vermont was first to enter, filing papers with the FEC on May 30, 2002 and Sen. Bob Graham of Florida became the ninth candidate, filing on February 27, 2003.  Some of the candidates chose to set up exploratory committees to pursue "testing the waters" activities,  while others opted against this intermediate step.  An exploratory committee can raise contributions and make expenditures "solely for the purpose of determining whether an individual should become a candidate."  Establishing such a committee also provides time for the candidate and the campaign team to gear up operations.  Once an individual has established an exploratory committee it is likely, but not certain that he or she will run.

A candidate's formal announcement speech sets the tone for his or her campaign. In a symbolic location, surrounded by family and cheering supporters, the candidate outlines the themes that he or she will call upon repeatedly during the course of the campaign. Oftentimes the candidate will do an announcement tour, delivering the same or similar speeches at several stops. Thereafter come countless stump speeches to local Rotary Clubs, to chambers of commerce, to state party conventions, and to assorted other gatherings in school auditoriums and American Legion halls around the country.

Race for Money
If past presidential campaigns are any guide, the major party nominees will be effectively settled by the end of 2003. Before the first vote is cast in a caucus or primary, candidates must first engage in "the money primary." Stan Huckaby, a Republican financial consultant, notes that "historically the person who has raised the most in matchable contributions as of the last day of the year prior to the election has always received the nomination." 

Building
In addition to their core campaign teams, candidates must also build organizations in key states, lining up support and endorsements from county chairmen and elected officials. The contacts and networks built up during the pre-campaign period provide a starting point. In Iowa, New Hampshire and perhaps a few other states, the campaigns open state headquarters to better mobilize supporters. 

To attract money and talent, a candidate must convince the party activists and donors that he or she can wage a winning campaign. Some candidates seek strong showings in various straw polls to demonstrate appeal. Major policy speeches draw attention. Favorable media coverage, poll results, major speeches and other developments all become fodder for campaign newsletters and updates as the campaigns seek to show growing support.

Meanwhile, behind the scenes, the campaign must lay the groundwork for qualifying for the ballot in the 50 states.  Each state has its own rules--some are tortuous, others expensive and others, like New Hampshire, are relatively straightforward.  In November and December, filing deadlines start coming up in individual states.  In a vital, but little noticed part of the campaign work goes on to line up full delegate slates, so that if the candidate actually survives the early contests, he or she will not be knocked out by default in later states. 

Campaign Heats Up
By fall 2003, media and public attention turns more and more to Iowa and New Hampshire, where a lucky few voters will finally have a say.  The first candidate debates take place and the candidates' advertising begins in earnest. 

 While debates and forums rarely prove decisive, they do offer voters a good chance to compare the candidates. Some of the forums are actually joint appearances rather than debates featuring direct exchanges between the candidates. Quite a few of the primary debates are televised nationally on CNN, C-SPAN or, sometimes, the other networks, thus reaching a wider audience. 

The debate sponsor may be a news organization (or organizations), the state party, or another group.  How informative a debate is depends on which candidates are invited, which candidates choose to attend, and very importantly, the format. Controversies sometimes arise about underdog candidates who are not invited.  Alternatively, if there is a strong frontrunner, he or she often chooses to duck all but a few forums. When ten or more candidates are vying for a party's nomination, it can be very difficult to produce a coherent event. In the past, some debates have come to resemble game shows, or have been badly chopped up with advertising breaks. 

Exit Stage Left
For some candidates, the months of planning and preparation, hard work and handshaking are not enough to make it to the starting line, let alone secure the party's nomination.  At some point reality sets in, and it becomes impossible to continue without going into debt.  Thus a few candidates withdraw before the first votes are cast.  Emotions are high, and a few tears may be shed, as the candidate, surrounded by family and staff, announces the end of his or her quest.  The speech and the Q and A that may follow, offers initial insights into what the candidate feels he or she accomplished and why he or she failed to gain more support.  The candidate may also take this opportunity to throw his or her support to one of the remaining contenders. 

Copyright © 2002, 2003  Eric M. Appleman/Democracy in Action.