Anyone who thought Barack Obama’s announcement that he is preparing to bid for the Democratic presidential nomination would scare off other prospective candidates will be set straight before the weekend is done.

New York Senator Hillary Clinton, who would if elected be the first woman president, announced in a videotaped statement posted this morning on her campaign website that she is filing the paperwork necessary to create an exploratory committee — the traditional first step in rolling out a presidential campaign.

“I’m in. And I’m in to win,” Clinton tells supporters, adding that, “I’m not just starting a campaign, though, I’m beginning a conversation with you, with America. Let’s talk. Let’s chat. The conversation in Washington has been just a little one-sided lately, don’t you think?”

Those who suspect that Clinton is moving up her launch in order to steal some of Obama’s thunder before the Sunday talk shows get all wrapped up in an Obamania conversation would, of course, be right.

Until Obama came along, the former First Lady was the acknowledged frontrunner in the race. In fact, most of the talk was about which candidate would emerge as “the anti-Hillary.” Now, the speculation has shifted to the question of whether Obama might actually be the frontrunner.

That’s a conversation that Clinton wants to change — quickly.

Clinton’s decision to announce the formation of an exploratory committee represents the first formal indication that her much-anticipated run is going forward, and it will end speculation about the prospect that she might yet choose to remain in the Senate. (That speculation, a favorite of some D.C. pundits, never gained much credibility among Democrats at the grassroots, who were well aware of the Clinton team’s machinations in early caucus and primary states such as Iowa and New Hampshire; at the same time that Obama was making his announcement, Clinton was making personal calls to key Democratic activists in those states.)

But Clinton is not the only Democrat taking steps toward a presidential run this weekend. New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson, who if elected would be the first Hispanic president, is indicating that he will make an announcement on Sunday. A Richardson bid would be especially significant in the early stages of the fight for the nomination, as Democrats in the western state of Nevada — where the New Mexican is well known, and potentially something of a regional favorite — will be among the first to weigh in on the race.

From a historical standpoint, it is remarkable that a single week is seeing so many high-profile candidates leap into the Democratic contest. Traditionally, candidates seek to announce in isolation, so that they can reap the most media attention and, potentially, build excitement about their bids.

Even more remarkable is the fact that the latest launches come after a rapid succession of entries by former Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack, former North Carolina Senator John Edwards, Ohio Congressman Dennis Kucinich, Delaware Senator Joe Biden and Connecticut Senator Chris Dodd — all of whom are in different stages of preparing or advancing candidacies. Still to come: A decision by 2004 nominee John Kerry, and more speculation about what former Vice President Al Gore will do.

Why the rush?

Democrats are well aware that this race is starting fast. Less than a year from now, the Iowa caucuses will be done. And as Gore and Kerry will remind you, a first-place finish in Iowa often translates into primary wins and the nomination.

Obama and Clinton are clearly the first-tier candidates at this point, but Edwards has done the best job of organizing in the early caucus and primary states. The 2004 Democratic vice presidential nominee has actually led in some Iowa polls. Edwards has also begun to attract significant labor support in Las Vegas, which could make him a serious contender in Nevada.

Clinton is particularly determined to get going fast now becasue she wants to solidify what she sees as a critical base in New Hampshire. Her fear is that, if she does not move quickly, Obama will trump her there. The Illinois senator plans to return to the first-primary state in the near future, following upon a visit last fall that drew enthusiastic crowds and expressions of interest in his candidacy from key Democrats.

Even if she has more money than the other contenders and, arguably, a better network of potential supporters on the ground — many of them longtime “Friends of Bill,” who got to know Hillary while working on her husband’s presidential bid in 1991 and 1992 — Clinton understands that she cannot afford to lose Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada and expect to maintain a serious bid for the nomination.

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