With barely 900 days to go before the official process of replacing George W. Bush begins with the first presidential caucus, the good Democrats of Newton, Iowa, are anxious. Almost fully recovered from last fall’s bruising battle to carry their state for Al Gore, but still righteously indignant about the Supreme Court ruling that denied him the presidency–folks here prefer the word “theft”–the partisans of the Jasper County Democratic Party are aching to get back into the fight.

Just past 8 on a Saturday morning in July, the parking lot behind the United Auto Workers Local 997 hall is full. Latecomers are parking along the cornfield across the road and scrambling in, with only a few old-timers pausing to sweep bugs off the plaque that reads, “In memory of Solidarity Brother Edris ‘Soapy’ Owens–December 11, 1914-September 23, 1998–He woke up every day seeing the ghost of Walter Reuther, asking himself what can I do to make this world a better place.”

The torchbearers of the Reuther tradition have filled the tables and lined the walls of the hall. The Wallace brothers are among the last to show. “He’s not here yet?” ask the look-alike elders of the local party. “No, no, not yet, but you hurry up and get a seat up front so you can see,” says county party chair Sandy Shaver. That’s good advice. Moments later, the side door opens and in walks the son of a St. Louis milk-truck driver who, as far as these folks are concerned, looks pretty darned presidential.

“I’m a Democrat–in case you haven’t heard. I’ve got strong beliefs,” shouts House minority leader Dick Gephardt over the cheers. “We Democrats believe in labor unions. We believe that you build the economy from the bottom up, not the top down.”

“That’s right,” comes the chorus from the crowd. “Tell ’em, Dick, you tell ’em!”

Technically, Gephardt is in Newton to stump for US Representative Leonard Boswell, who is running for re-election and has just been forced by redistricting into a new district. The talk from the podium is all of “taking back the House”–the task to which Gephardt has devoted himself since the Republican landslide of 1994. But the unionists laugh when they are asked what has brought Gephardt to Newton. Congress is important, they agree. But Gephardt–who began frequenting Iowa as a populist presidential contender in 1988–is here on more serious business. It is the same mission that has drawn Senate majority leader Tom Daschle, Senators John Kerry and John Edwards, former Senator Bill Bradley and US Representatives Marcy Kaptur and Jesse Jackson Jr. to Iowa in recent months; the same mission that made Senate Foreign Relations Committee chair Joseph Biden the featured speaker at the Manchester, New Hampshire, City Democratic Committee’s St. Patrick’s Day breakfast on a frosty New England morning; the same mission that saw Gephardt asking for extra tomato sauce at the Cheshire County Democrats’ annual spaghetti supper in Keene, New Hampshire, in June; and the same mission that prompted Senator Russ Feingold to accept an April invite from the University of New Hampshire’s College Democrats to give a lecture.

“You see,” explains Robert Jones, a Local 997 retiree, in his best Politics 101 tone, “there’s a fellow in the White House that don’t belong there. He got there because his brother fixed it for him down in Florida. Now, we’re getting ready to fix him.”

Sure, you can hear pundits on CNN or Fox complaining about what they describe as the absurdly early start of the 2004 presidential contest–just before they begin speculating on who’s in and who’s out. But the folks who will play a disproportionate role in deciding that contest, the Democrats of Newton, Keene and a hundred other towns in the first caucus and first primary states of Iowa and New Hampshire, don’t feel rushed. When a reporter apologizes for asking them questions about a presidential race that is still more than thirty months off, they ask, “Why?” The same goes for the thousands of other Democrats across the country who have already begun writing checks to pay for campaigns that, in almost every sense, began with the December 13, 2000, concession speech Al Gore closed by telling “those who feel their voices have not been heard” that “I heard you and I will not forget.”

Of the Democrats who might run in 2004, only Gore opted for the “decent interval” that challengers generally allow to pass between the close of one presidential campaign and the start of another. And it has cost him. “You write this down: Al Gore better shit or get off the pot,” says Paul Doran, a UAW stalwart who used to serve as the union’s international representative in central Iowa. “People are disappointed that the guy we killed ourselves trying to get elected President went into a damned cocoon after the election. Regardless of what he thinks about the last election, it’s over. There’s another one coming. He better tell us what he’s doing. And he better tell us quick because we don’t want to sit around waiting for him to get over it. We want to get Bush, and we’re going to go with the candidate who shows us he’s hungry enough to take the bastard on.”

Doran slips his arm around Gephardt’s neck and says, “Gore abandoned us. We haven’t heard from him since the election. But this man has never let us down.” Gephardt, who put his presidential ambitions on hold in 2000 in order to unite the party behind Gore, laughs loud and long. What does he think of Doran’s analysis? “I would never argue with my friend Paul Doran,” he says, still smiling.

Neither, anymore, is Gore disputing Doran’s conclusions. In July, Gore hired a former finance director of the Democratic National Committee and another top fundraiser, and began to set up a political action committee. He gathered 100 campaign aides at his Virginia home in June, and DNC chair Terry McAuliffe says that when the summer is over Gore will begin “extensively campaign[ing] for candidates.” In late July, New Hampshire newspapers were reporting that local Democrats had started taking calls from the former Vice President’s minions. Asked whether Gore is running, McAuliffe only says, “He is keeping his options open.” But McAuliffe acknowledges that Gore is making the right moves for someone who wants to run.

Everyone around Gore says he wanted to hold off longer. But Tony Coelho, the former Vice President’s campaign manager, joined pollsters and strategists in telling their man that it was no longer an option. Yes, Coelho and others acknowledged, Gore continues to lead every national poll of Democrats and all of the private and public polls taken in New Hampshire and Iowa–with declared noncandidate Hillary Clinton a consistent No. 2 and Gephardt or Bradley in third place. But that hasn’t stopped a substantial portion of the Senate Democratic caucus from booking flights to Des Moines and Manchester. Daschle, who shows signs of interest in parlaying his newfound prominence as the leader of the Senate Democrats into a presidential run, visited Iowa in May to talk up his support for a new farm bill and to meet with local media. Kerry, who trekked to the state for a June fundraising event and will soon hit New Hampshire, has been building a campaign staff thick with former fundraisers for and aides to top Democrats. The Massachusetts senator with the good looks and the initials JFK has banked $2 million that could be used for a 2004 run–with a substantial portion of the money collected on forays into Silicon Valley, New York City and other sources of Gore money in the 2000 campaign. Then there’s Gore’s vice presidential running mate, Senator Joseph Lieberman. Despite a pledge not to mount a 2004 candidacy if Gore does, Lieberman has been fundraising for himself and others, and at the big Democratic Leadership Council gathering in Indianapolis in July, there was Lieberman meeting with a half-dozen key New Hampshire moderates. When John Edwards isn’t lecturing at Des Moines’s Drake Law School and joking about how excited he is at the thought of visiting Iowa and New Hampshire in the winter, the buzzworthy North Carolina senator has made himself available as a featured speaker at Democratic gatherings across the country. Bradley dispatched a “don’t forget about me” e-mail to about 85,000 supporters nationwide in May and made his second postelection visit to Iowa in June. California Governor Gray Davis, though bogged down by that state’s energy crisis, continues to seize national platforms and to provoke high-profile duels with the Bush Administration. And Gephardt, well, he’s everywhere. His stop at the Local 997 hall was part of a sweep across central Iowa that included a house party with big donors, a pep talk for Young Democrats, breakfast with party stalwarts and an ice-cream social that saw him dishing up treats for Democrats beneath the noonday sun in 95-degree weather.

“You’re not likely to see anyone making it official until after the 2002 elections. But Kerry is playing, Edwards is playing, Gephardt is playing. Everybody’s making noise this summer. That’s why Gore couldn’t sit back any longer,” says veteran Democratic fundraiser and strategist Bob McDevitt. “Gore is coming out earlier than he wanted because the others are raising their visibility. Even if he is the 900-pound gorilla–99 percent name recognition, solid poll numbers, a base around the country–Gore knows there are people who are saying ‘you had your chance.’ That means he’ll have to hustle for it.”

The expectation is that Gore will borrow from the approach of Richard Nixon, who established the modern model for losers turned contenders, by energetically touring the country on behalf of Democratic candidates in 2002 and then moving to turn the good will and media attention into front-runner status for 2004. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that the faithful are lighting candles in anticipation of another run. “I hear Gore’s opened an office in Washington. That’s the first I’d heard of him since the election–except that he gained forty pounds,” said Katie Doyle, a “lifelong Democrat” from Urbandale, Iowa, who showed up for Gephardt’s ice-cream social as part of her candidate-scoping for 2004. “I supported Gore in 2000. I got to know him pretty well. But after the last election, I don’t know. I think it might be better for him–and for us–if he let someone else make a run.”

That list of possible someones is long–McAuliffe says there could be up to ten serious contenders for the 2004 nod–but not all that ideologically diverse. Daschle, Kerry, Biden and Bradley practice a malleable liberalism that usually places them slightly to the left of Gore. The DLC leadership, which seeks to make the Democratic Party over as a Republican-lite force backing free trade, business-friendly economic policies and tepid moderation on social issues, continues to peddle the theory that Gore lost because he was too liberal. Casting about for a candidate after Indiana Senator Evan Bayh wrote himself out of the race, and fearful that Lieberman will remain true to his “if Gore goes, I won’t” word, DLC insiders are openly recruiting. There’s some interest in John Breaux, the Louisiana senator whose conservative credentials are such that he was felt out by Bush as a Cabinet prospect, and whose interest in the race has led him to troll for speaking invitations in New Hampshire. Senator Dianne Feinstein of California–whose free-trade stands mirror those of the DLC’s corporate funders–has sparked speculation with stepped-up fundraising and speaking engagements. Most attention remains focused, however, on Edwards. Though his voting record places him a little left of the DLC–he has established an 88 percent AFL-CIO record so far–the man who almost scored a spot on the 2000 ticket is selling himself as a fresh young moderate for 2004.

But where is the great progressive hope? Where is the candidate who could speak for the great mass of Democratic caucus and primary voters who had to swallow hard on Gore’s support for free trade, an expanded military and the rest of the DLC agenda that made the soft-populism of his 2000 campaign sound so, well, soft? Feingold is the greenest member of the Senate, as well as its most ardent foe of the death penalty. He has also been fearless in taking on corporate and political powers-that-be over issues ranging from AIDS in Africa to human rights abuses in China. But like his campaign-finance mate John McCain, he is such a maverick that he is open to assault from virtually every constituency in the party–especially those still smarting over his vote to confirm Attorney General John Ashcroft. Paul Wellstone, who still regrets his decision not to run in 2000, is locked in a bloody 2002 re-election fight that precludes national considerations for now. Vermont Governor Howard Dean, another “almost” candidate in 2000, is turning up at gay and lesbian events as far away as San Francisco, talking about his state’s civil union law and other liberal initiatives. Former Labor Secretary Robert Reich has joked, somewhat longingly, about being open to a draft–although he would have to explain his advocacy on behalf of NAFTA to skeptical unionists. Then there is Representative Jesse Jackson Jr., the son of the two-time “Rainbow Coalition” candidate whose name recognition rivals that of Gore, and whose progressive passions place him right where a lot of grassroots Democrats would like to see their party. Jackson’s allies do not hesitate to point out that he alone poses a serious threat to Gore’s base among African-American voters–decisive players in the decisive Super Tuesday primaries of 2004. But Jackson steers talk away from a run that might squander his growing reputation–at least until he sees whether his book, A More Perfect Union, stirs a movement within the party to aggressively promote constitutional amendments guaranteeing a right to healthcare, housing, education and a living wage. In the meantime, one of Jackson’s Progressive Caucus colleagues, Ohio’s Marcy Kaptur, is encouraging speculation about a possible run with visits to farm groups in Iowa and union gatherings around the country. One of the House’s fiercest foes of free trade and military adventurism abroad, Kaptur is right on a lot of the issues, but her name recognition is such that even she admits, “I’m the darkest of the dark horses.”

For many progressives, especially those in labor, that leaves Gephardt, the aw-shucks everyman of Democratic politics, whose liberal voting record is often obscured by the compromises he has made to hold together a caucus in which conservative “Blue Dog” and DLC Democrats frequently force a fuzzing of the message. At the Local 997 hall, however, there is nothing fuzzy about Gephardt. He is banging Bush’s tax cuts and ripping Republicans with that old populist fury: “They’re not for a prescription drug plan, they’re not for a patients’ bill of rights, they’re not for a minimum-wage increase, they’re not for education…” And he is striking a chord nationally, especially with labor insiders, who say Gephardt would likely edge out Gore for endorsements from still-potent industrial unions like the UAW, the Steelworkers and the Machinists.

Gephardt certainly has friends in Newton. After he finishes speaking, everyone in the room lines up to shake his hand. What follows is an hour of what can only be described as music to a potential candidate’s ears–especially when he’s looking at a campaign trail that stretches across the next three years. “My mother is 92. She couldn’t come today, but she told me to tell you to run for President in 2004,” says Anne Tabik, from Tama. Doug Bishop, a 30-something factory worker, grabs Gephardt’s hand. “This is one of the few dear friends we have in Washington,” he says. A few feet away, Larry Shaver, who recalls putting eighteen months of volunteer work into Gore’s 2000 campaign, nods his head in agreement. “If Gore wants to give it another shot, we’ll look at that real hard,” says Shaver, a union rep at Newton’s Maytag plant. “But, you know, I got a little tired last time of explaining to people why we had to elect a guy who wasn’t always with us on trade and some of these other issues. A lot of us are thinking that if we’re going to put all this time into beating Bush, we’d like to do it for a Democrat we know is really with us.”