The U.S. presidential election is eight months away, but the strategies for the two major candidates are already emerging.
For the presumptive Democratic Party nominee, Senator John Kerry, the challenge will be to raise questions about President Bush's leadership over the past four years, and offer a compelling reason for change.
"Our campaign is about replacing doubt with hope and replacing fear with security," he announced.
President Bush, on the other hand, will highlight his leadership in the aftermath of the 2001 terrorist attacks, and he will target John Kerry's liberal voting record in the U.S. Senate.
"It is a choice between an America that leads the world with strength and confidence, or an America that is uncertain in the face of danger," said Mr. Bush.
The economy, jobs, health care, national security and foreign policy all figure as central issues in the 2004 campaign. And both President Bush and Senator Kerry have themes and issues they would prefer to focus on, issues they believe will help them, and hurt their opponent.
"Right now, I think it is clear that Republicans want the issue to be about foreign policy, national security, defense and presidential leadership," said Stuart Rothenberg, who publishes an independent political newsletter in Washington D.C. "The Democrats are more focused on things like jobs, domestic priorities, but also talking about the war [Iraq] and presidential leadership."
Stuart Rothenberg and many other political analysts look for a close election in 2004, similar perhaps to the tight contest four years ago, when Mr. Bush narrowly defeated then-Vice President Al Gore.
Georgetown University political expert Stephen Wayne says the first priority for both candidates is making sure their core supporters turn out and vote in November.
"The election will hinge on two factors," he said. "One, how each side turns out its base of supporters, in other words, how they bring them out to vote. In general, Republicans have had a larger percentage of their people turn out to vote than the Democrats, so the Democrats are going to have to make a big effort here.
"And secondly, there are about 10 percent of the population who are truly independent, who have not made a decision," added Mr. Wayne. "And both candidates will appeal to that 10 percent of the voters."
It is also likely that the outcome of the election will hinge on the results in a relatively small number of so-called swing states, states that are nearly evenly divided among Democrats, Republicans and Independents.
It is worth noting that U.S. presidential elections are not decided by the popular vote nationwide. Each state has a certain number of Electoral College votes, based on its population. The candidate who wins the popular vote in a given state wins all of that state's electoral votes. Two-hundred-seventy electoral votes are required to win the White House.
In the 2000 election, there were a total of 16 states that President Bush either won or lost by five percentage points or less.
Georgetown University Professor Stephen Wayne says these so-called battleground states are likely to be the focus of attention for both candidates this year, as well.
"As we look at it today, the key states are the ones in the Midwest and in the Mid-Atlantic, beginning with Pennsylvania and going to Ohio and Illinois and Minnesota and then Wisconsin and Iowa," said Professor Wayne. "The state of Florida in the south and the Pacific Coast states - Washington, Oregon and even [traditionally Democratic] California - now that California has a Republican governor who seems to be reasonably popular."
It is expected that both the president and Senator Kerry will be making numerous visits to these key states in the months ahead. In fact, the new television advertisements being run by the president's re-election committee target most of the states that are expected to be close in November.