COLLEGE PARK, Ga. - Reports of an anthrax attack were swirling back home as Mark Warner glad-handed through campaign-style stops recently in Atlanta.
The Virginia governor cut short his two-day visit, but not before addressing the annual dinner of the Georgia Democratic Party, which promoted Warner, a potential presidential candidate, as the draw.
"It's early, but it's never too early" for presidential politics, said former Georgia Gov. Roy Barnes, surveying a crowd of nearly 1,000 fellow Democrats who ate chicken and mashed potatoes, and came away with Warner's recipe for a Southern party comeback.
One reason for the flurry of early activity: The competition for the White House in 2008 will be more open than any in more than half a century. Not since the 1952 campaign has neither an incumbent president nor a vice president been a contender going into the next election.
At the moment, more than two dozen men and women are being viewed as potential candidates, an unusually large number. Many are quietly traveling the country, meeting with activists and prospective donors and road-testing campaign themes.
For a presidential wannabe who is little known nationally, it could take $35 million to $40 million in contributions, according to some estimates, to become a familiar name and wage a competitive campaign. That's less of a problem for potential candidates such as Hillary Rodham Clinton or John McCain or former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani.
But it helps explain why Sen. Bill Frist of Tennessee is phoning Republican fund-raisers in key states around the country. Frist, the most active early entrant on the Republican side, also took a high-profile role in the fight to keep Terri Schiavo alive, a crusade of major importance to the party's dominant bloc of social and religious conservatives.
Efforts by Frist and others to get a jump on potential rivals isn't the only reason the silly-season buzz seems louder than normal. Hyper-partisanship is also playing a part, on both sides.
Recently, a former Republican congressman from New York began soliciting funds on the Internet for an attack campaign against Clinton, modeled on the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth ads often credited with helping defeat John Kerry last year.
The anti-Clinton group says it wants to air commercials "to tear her down in New York as she runs for re-election next year. We must damage her in 2006 in order to defeat her in 2008," according to a statement by John LeBoutillier on his Web site, StopHillaryPAC.com.
When Frist made the first of two visits this month to New Hampshire, the first primary state, the state Democratic Party "took a real tough partisan shot at him," noted Tom Rath, a Republican veteran from Concord, N.H.
That kind of aggressiveness so soon after the last election is one reason the next campaign seems to be starting "earlier than any I've seen," he said.
Gauging the dynamics of the 2008 contest is only a guess at this juncture. But the picture is being scrambled by an apparent role reversal.
For now, Republicans are looking more like Democrats, with a lineup of contenders that defies the party's preference for an orderly succession.
With President Bush barred by law from running again, the vice president would normally be expected to move up, as Bush's father did after Ronald Reagan served two terms. But Dick Cheney has effectively taken himself out of the race, largely for health reasons.
That has left Republicans without an obvious favorite. When the presidency is open, Republicans typically elevate a senior figure whose "turn" it is to lead - most recently, Bob Dole in 1996.
This time, "you have lots of Republicans around the country scratching their heads because there is no heir apparent," said Scott Reed, who managed Dole's campaign.
On the Republican side, the candidates who seem to be attracting the most attention are moderates McCain and Giuliani. Each is regarded with deep suspicion by the party's conservative base.
At the same time, no well-known figure such as Patrick J. Buchanan or Pat Robertson is preparing to run as the candidate of social and religious conservatives, whose votes could be pivotal in choosing a nominee.
Ralph Reed, a top Bush campaign adviser and former Christian Coalition executive director, maintains that there is no longer a need for a presidential contender with the social-conservative brand in Republican politics.
"I think that social conservatives are now fully integrated into the grass-roots framework and the policy framework of the party," he said. They don't require a candidate of their own "so long as they feel there's a viable candidate that shares their values and their policy views."
For any prospective candidate just starting out, though, it helps to have a niche.