Candidates know a strong early showing is critical
Let the race begin.
Although presidential elections in the United States are still some 18 months off, the race for who will challenge President George W Bush has already begun in earnest.
Nine Democrats have descended on Columbia, South Carolina, for a weekend of events culminating in the first debate of this election on Saturday night.
Primary elections - which will decide the party's nominee - will not begin until January 2004, but candidates know that a strong early showing is critical.
Those who distinguish themselves early will be able to raise the money necessary to sustain the long campaign through to the presidential election in November 2004.
George W Bush had a network of super-fundraisers who all pledged to raise at least $100,000 for his campaign.
He shattered political fundraising records, eventually building a $100m war chest.
His Republican rivals simply could not compete.
Dishing up criticism
The Democratic hopefuls are looking for such an early edge.
They worked the crowd at a formal dinner thrown by the South Carolina Democratic Party and later at a fish fry thrown by Representative Jim Clyburn.
Candidate Dean's straight-talking has ruffled some feathers within the party
The crowd buzzed and photographers crowded around former Vermont Governor Howard Dean, who has emerged as the dark horse in this race.
An effusive Senator John Kerry embraced supporters warmly as he made his way through the crowd, while chants of "Gep-hardt" broke out from supporters of Representative Richard Gephardt.
As South Carolina Democrats passed plates piled with food, they also served up plenty of criticism of President Bush.
They mocked his education initiative, called "No Child Left Behind".
Democratic leaders said that it should be called "No Behind Left", saying that it made demands on schools without providing the money necessary to meet those demands.
They condemned his economic policies as unemployment rose to 6%.
The last time it was higher was 6.1% in July 1994.
Democrats know they face a stiff challenge in Mr Bush, who is riding high in the polls after military successes in Iraq.
DEMOCRATIC PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATES
Reverend Al Sharpton
The party is still trying to find an effective strategy to counter President Bush and the Republicans, after disappointing losses in last year's mid-term elections.
Howard Dean is fond of saying that he represents the democrat wing of the Democratic Party, tapping into sentiment that the party has not done enough to oppose Mr Bush's foreign policy or programme of tax cuts.
"The only way was have a chance of beating George W Bush is to take it to him, to not be afraid of the polls, to not be afraid of the right-wing talk show hosts," he told a cheering crowd.
He is a passionate, fiery speaker, and his straight-talking style has ruffled some feathers within the party.
He has not been afraid to criticise other candidates, and the campaigns of Mr Dean and Senator Kerry were locked in a high-profile spat this week over US military superiority.
Republican's troubling tactics
It is early in the primary process, but Democrats are keen to quickly pick their candidate and rally behind him or her.
KEY DEMOCRATIC PRIMARIES 2004
19 Jan: Iowa caucuses
27 Jan: New Hampshire
3 Feb: South Carolina
3 Feb: Arizona
7 Feb: Michigan
10 Feb: Virginia
2 March: California
South Carolina moved its primary forward to 3 February.
"We don't want to go through the late primaries undecided, with our candidates beating up on each other when they should be saving their powder for George W Bush," said one Democrat, C Carlyle Steele.
He said that the Republicans have successfully made George W Bush and the United States synonymous, making it unpatriotic to question or oppose the president.
Democrats will challenge the president on his economic record, and another Democrat, Lonnie Randolph Junior said they will work to organise black Americans who are still angry over President Bush's election.
A large majority of black Americans believe that President Bush was appointed by the Supreme Court, not elected by the people, including Mr Randolph.
The black community will mobilise to elect a Democratic president, he predicted.
"You will see more persons from our community, more churches, more organisations working to make sure that every vote is counted and more people vote," he said.