Voters won't pick Iowa's next governor for more than a year, but the race for the state's top office is taking shape in both parties.
It makes sense for the candidates to focus on the race this early.
First, Gov. Tom Vilsack, a Democrat, is not running for re-election. Iowa voters tend to re-elect governors, with just three governors holding office over a 38-year stretch. That leaves the race open in both parties, something that doesn't happen very often.
Second, none of the major contenders in either party has a strong statewide tie to primary voters and it takes a lot of time to woo those folks over.
"It is an open seat, and that draws interest, and people are focusing earlier because they've got some new people to get to know," said veteran Democratic activist Paulee Lipsman.
Some key activists already have begun to pick sides, and some important interest groups are looking to do the same.
Among Democrats, most of the attention is focused on a field of four that includes Secretary of State Chet Culver, Agriculture Secretary Patty Judge, state Rep. Ed Fallon and former Department of Economic Development Head Michael Blouin. Blouin and Culver are expected to formally announce by the end of the month, but both are already in the race.
Culver sought in some ways to head off any competition. He possesses a famous name - his father, John Culver, was a U.S. senator from Iowa - and has raised the most money, telling people he's nearing the $1 million mark.
That's an impressive number, given that Gov. Tom Vilsack spent a grand total of $800,000 in winning a contested primary in 1998.
What Culver has been unable to do, however, is thin out his competition.
Blouin has moved quickly to garner the backing of 18 of 25 Democratic state senators and 32 of 49 Democratic House members. That's significant because legislators tend to be political pragmatists, who want the strongest possible candidate at the top of the ticket.
"Most of the people I've talked to think Blouin has the vision to be a better general election candidate," said veteran legislative staffer Ron Parker.
In addition, Judge has impressed many with the fire she's bringing to the race. While some of her rivals are coy about declaring their intentions, she made it clear from the beginning she was giving up her current post and running for governor.
She also points to a background as a nurse, farmer, statewide elected official and legislator, plus she's the only woman in the field.
Fallon has far less money than his rivals, but he's pure on all the issues liberal activists care about. Blouin's anti-abortion views and Culver's support for the death sentence worry some of those hard-core liberals.
On the Republican side, Rep. Jim Nussle, R-Iowa, is seen by many in the party establishment as being the favorite, though Sioux City businessman Bob Vander Plaats says he relishes running as an outsider.
Des Moines lawyer Doug Gross, who captured the GOP nomination in 2002 and flirted with running again, refers to Nussle as "the nominee in waiting."
GOP lawmakers appear to have made that call as well. Forty-two of the 51 Iowa House Republicans and 22 of the 25 state Senate Republicans have endorsed Nussle as well.