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US Presidential Election Campaign Under Way Earlier Than Ever

The 2008 campaign for the White House is off to an unusually early start, with a host of presidential hopefuls seeking the nominations of the United States' two major political parties. Among the Democrats, two leading contenders could make U.S. political history. The first woman to lead the presidential pack is off and running. And the first African-American who is given a real chance to win also has sparked excitement. VOA's Jim Fry reports.

Hillary Clinton, the New York senator and former first lady, campaigned Saturday in Iowa, about a year before the state's caucuses. "I'm running for president, and I'm in it to win it," she said.

Thirteen days earlier there was an online announcement of Illinois Senator Barak Obama's candidacy. "I certainly didn't expect to find myself in this position a year ago."

Two Democrats, two frontrunners ... sometimes taking similar stands:

Sen. Barack Obama’s position on health care. "The time has come for universal health care in America."

Sen. Hillary Clinton’s position on health care. "I believe we still need to make a commitment to universal health care."

The two Democrats vying to be their party's choice for president are the first woman and the first African-American with a strong chance of winning the nomination.

Race and gender will not decide the contest, says political scholar Stephen Hess of George Washington University. "He has the charm of newness, in which everybody can read into it what they think he believes, because it's what they believe. She, we know where she's coming from. It's just an absolutely fascinating duo."

Recently the wife of former President Bill Clinton, now beginning her second six-year term in the Senate, was talking to the nation's mayors. Addressing their concerns about affordable housing, poverty and universal health care, she speaks... at a Washington hotel.

Travel two blocks down "K" Street -- one of the capital city's main streets -- go around the block, up Connecticut Avenue to the historic Mayflower Hotel and inside you'll find ... Obama.

The freshman senator's speech on universal care is applauded. Community health activist Anton Gunn hopes Obama is the nominee.

"The bottom line, you know, it's not really about experience -- in my opinion. It's about good judgment. And I'd rather have someone with great judgment and no experience than someone with a lot of experience and poor judgment." Gunn recalls Hillary Clinton's failure as first lady to win enough support for President Bill Clinton's national health-care plan.

Many Democrats fear that Hillary's image as a cautious, calculating political figure could hurt her chances.

But mayors, like Donald Plusquellic of Akron, Ohio, saw something different: "In person, she's a lot warmer and friendlier, and the image, I think, is unfortunate and mostly wrong about her. She's very bright. She understands the issues of today."

One other Democratic hopeful could make history if he wins the party nomination and becomes the first Hispanic candidate for president: New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson. The former U.S. ambassador to the U.N. trails in the early opinion polls, though.

Enthusiastic speculation surrounded Obama long before he announced his presidential hopes. The Illinois senator's sharp words about the administration's oil policies won applause in New Hampshire: "Why would we want to fund both sides of the war on terrorism?"

Clinton brought out large crowds last weekend on her first trip to Iowa as a candidate, where she had stark criticism of President Bush's failure to get America out of Iraq. "I think it's the height of irresponsibility, and I really resent it."

There is much time before the snows fall again next year on Iowa's farm fields, when residents, like pig farmer Craig Hill, will test the candidates face to face in the state's political caucuses. "And you're going to have to sit in a gymnasium and answer difficult questions, and you won't be able to escape," said Hill.

Much can still happen here and elsewhere that could change what looks now like a historic choice for U.S. Democrats.