It's only the summer of 1993, but don't be fooled. The clock is ticking.

"I have friends, people I've known for a long time, saying, 'Hey, you know, the race has started, get in there, do something,' " said William J. Bennett, the former education secretary who admittedly is "thinking" about running for the Republican presidential nomination in 1996.

"I say, 'I'd like a little more time, I'd like to be a little more deliberate about it.' But they say, 'That's fine, but people are getting committed.' They say, 'Maybe Labor Day, but no later than that.' I just reject that. No way I'll be pushed into it."

If Bennett's friends sound like they've lost touch with reality, consider the following:

New Hampshire has been practically awash in candidates, chased by C-SPAN's ubiquituous cameras. With more Republicans on the way, there could be gridlock in Manchester this fall.

Visitors this year have included Senate Minority Leader Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.), Sen. Phil Gramm (R-Tex.), former defense secretary Richard B. Cheney, former education secretary Lamar Alexander, former labor secretary Lynn Martin, Sen. Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.) and Rep. Robert K. Dornan (R-Calif.), who has indicated he wants to run.

"People say they've never seen it start so early," said Stephen Duprey, the Republican state chairman, adding, "Maybe the New Hampshire Republicans should buy a visitors house. We could make some money on this."

Dole already has visited 28 states, including five trips to Iowa, and he recently announced that he plans to spend a week of the August recess in New Hampshire, the state that destroyed his hopes in 1988. The buzz in Republican circles is that his high-profile opposition to President Clinton has given Dole, despite his age (he just turned 70), the jump on his 1996 rivals.

Write it off to a hot, slow summer. But early interest in a nomination so far away reflects both Clinton's descent in the polls and the lack of a dominant figure in the party akin to a Ronald Reagan before the 1980 election.

"People are sensing the nomination is worth getting and that it's a wide open show," said Mike Murphy, a Republican operative.

Curiously absent from the speculation is former vice president Dan Quayle. Friends believe he will wait until his book is published before making any decisions, but many Republicans do not expect him to run and say his virtual disappearance this year was a mistake. "He's in some danger of falling off the end of the Earth," one Republican friend said.

But everyone else seems to be scrambling.

Because of Dole's visibility, friends of former housing secretary Jack Kemp fear he's already playing catch-up -- two years and seven months before the first caucuses of 1996. "There's fuming and turbulence" inside Kemp's network, said one Republican, over Kemp's decision to hit the lecture circuit rather than the campaign trail this year, and he is under pressure to advance his timetable.

Aware of the criticism, Kemp said, "I don't think it means I have to get out there and call 'Face the Nation' or the David Brinkley show every Sunday and compete with Bob Dole. He's the titular head of the party and he's done a great job."

Nonetheless, Kemp plans to step up his political travels this fall, including trips to New Hampshire and Iowa, and said he soon will form his own political action committee (PAC). And look for him on the Sunday talks shows.

Gramm, chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, has visited 21 states this year, will establish a PAC, and, said one knowledgeable Republican, is lining up a network of contributors from the party's Team 100. In the eyes of other Republicans, no one is running harder for the 1996 nomination. "Certainly I'm looking at it," Gramm said. "You've got a dozen Republicans looking at it and I'm one of them."

Alexander, perhaps because he has to elbow his way into the fray, has shed the customary pretense of presidential hopefuls. He is telling people he is likely to be a candidate and is actively wooing influential Republicans from New Hampshire and elsewhere. "I very well may run in 1996," he said. "I hope that I can. I would like to."

The former Tennessee governor has launched the Republican Neighborhood Meeting, a monthly satellite television program that now reaches GOP activists in 40 states, and plans to form his own PAC.

Cheney has spent much of the year earning money on the speaking circuit, but systematically has been meeting with local and county Republican leaders along the way. He deliberately plunked himself down at the American Enterprise Institute to give himself the freedom to consider a 1996 race and expects to reach a decision while communing with fly rod out West this summer.

Given the history of past nomination fights, the assessment of one Republican veteran that the early "milling around is about 99 percent irrelevant" is no doubt correct. But after a strikingly short nomination battle among the Democrats in 1992, the Republicans appear to have reverted to the Long March strategy for 1996, and no one wants to be left behind.

"The Clinton model {of starting late} is not the model that can be used in this cycle," said Edward J. Rollins, who ran President Ronald Reagan's campaign in 1984 and worked briefly for independent candidate Ross Perot last summer.

But the Republicans are on unpredictable terrain. William Kristol, Quayle's former top aide, offered this note of caution to those maneuvering for position: "It is a little bit like members of the Politburo in {the 1980s} plotting inside strategy to succeed Brezhnev and Chernenko," he said. "One has the feeling that big changes are coming."

Despite the flock of potential Republican candidates, Kristol said, more Republican voters have pulled a lever for Perot than for any of those now counted among the prospective field. "The easiest scenario to write is Ross Perot winning the Republican nomination," he said, adding that he finds that prospect alarming.

Former representative Vin Weber (R-Minn.), a Kemp ally, said that much of the preliminary activity, particularly among the lesser-knowns, is aimed at landing "on the short list," and if there is such a list, it starts with Dole and Kemp, who both have run before and have national support.

But Dole must overcome age (he will turn 73 about the time of the 1996 convention) and two uneven campaigns in 1980 and 1988, while Kemp must show the kind of discipline and tenacity he once exhibited as a professional football quarterback but which his 1988 candidacy lacked.

Some Republicans say Cheney should be in the same category with Dole and Kemp, even though he has never run for president. Despite having served only in the House, Cheney is seen as someone with enough national standing, experience, and seriousness -- as well as fund-raising potential -- to compete for the nomination. But he lacks a clear base in the party and will face questions about past heart problems.

Some also list Gramm as part of a Republican Big Four, not because of any national identity or beloved status in the party, but because of his Texas base, his likely financial network and his willingness to do what it takes to win. "If there's one guy who gets out of bed and asks himself, 'What 20 things do I have to do today to be president?' it's Phil Gramm," Weber said.

Other potential candidates are using 1993 to raise their profiles nationally.

Lynn Martin said she trooped off to New Hampshire to reserve a place in the upcoming debate over the direction of the party. "You do have to do those things that keep a national constituency," she said. "Strangely enough, it means you have to spend time in New Hampshire. I do not oppose personal ambition, but I think it's a wee early for that."

And for all his protestations, Bennett is "more serious" about considering a candidacy than some friends had expected and may form a PAC of his own "to put down a marker" of his interest.

South Carolina Gov. Carroll A. Campbell Jr. (R) will take over the chairmanship of the National Governors' Association in August, a post held by Clinton during his rise to prominence, and has been raising money this summer for his PAC. One adviser said despite the title, Fund for Southern Progress, the fund increasingly may be used to give money to candidates outside the region.

But Republicans say other governors with national ambitions include Wisconsin's Tommy G. Thompson, Massachusetts's William F. Weld, Michigan's John Engler, even California's battered and unpopular Pete Wilson, if he survives his reelection bid. Conservative commentator Patrick J. Buchanan, who challenged President George Bush in 1992, may find the field too crowded next time. And the recent election of Texas treasurer Kay Bailey Hutchison (R) to the U.S. Senate instantly put her on everyone's list for vice president, except, of course, fellow Texan Gramm's.

Some veteran Republicans are quietly promoting the idea of a candidacy by Gen. Colin L. Powell, who is soon to retire as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. They may be disappointed. "He has no political ambitions or aspirations for 1996 or thereafter," said Col. F. William Smullen, his spokesman. "Now he's not going to rule it out, but it's not going to be in the near term or at all."

The 1996 field of hopefuls will try to earn goodwill by spending the next year helping to elect fellow Republicans, first in the gubernatorial races this fall in New Jersey and Virginia, and then across the country in the midterm elections of 1994. California's school choice initiative this fall will give national Republicans another stage on which to play, and Bennett especially, along with Alexander and Kemp, will be there.

But whatever else they may be doing, they will keep at least one eye on 1996. Alexander recently hosted a retreat to help him plan the next six months of activity for his satellite neighborhood meetings. Would political historians mark that as the first gathering of the Alexander '96 Campaign, he was asked?

"No," he replied with a laugh. "I think there were meetings before that."

Staff researcher Ann O'Hanlon contributed to this report.