Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.) hopped a plane yesterday morning for California, delivered a speech to the state Democratic convention, met with a few important people, raised some money and planned to be home before sundown tonight.

Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) arrived in California ahead of Edwards, held several fundraisers on Friday, spoke to the convention yesterday and had two more fundraisers scheduled before the day's end. His press secretary, David Wade, described it as a "great, busy political weekend."

Senate Majority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.) also attended the state convention in Los Angeles yesterday, and House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) will be in California before the holiday weekend ends. Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.) arrives early in the week for a political swing up the coast and what aides say will be a "major speech" on the environment.

The travels of these Democratic politicians reflect the weird reality of presidential politics. Long before the first primaries of 2004, months before the 2002 midterm elections, and well before most Americans care, they are out on the circuit. What they hope is to create the buzz that will lead to early favorable reviews, financial support and eventually enough political momentum to carry them to the nomination two years from now.

Some may decide not to run in 2004. But like Olympic athletes, whose preparation began years before the Salt Lake City games, the potential Democratic candidates have begun the training exercises that will show whether they are ready for the endurance test of the grueling nomination process.

Their schedules include past and upcoming trips to Iowa and New Hampshire, the states that traditionally open the nominating battle, and to other states likely to hold early primaries in 2004.

In mid-April, many of the presidential hopefuls who gathered in California this weekend will travel to Florida for a state Democratic convention, where they will be joined by former vice president Al Gore, who has begun to stir this month after a year in hibernation. In the past week, he delivered a speech on foreign policy and issued two statements sharply critical of President Bush on the environment.

Several factors drive this early activity. One is the belief that the race for the 2004 Democratic nomination will be wide open. Gore remains by far the best known of the potential candidates, but many Democratic activists -- including some who strongly supported him in 2000 -- do not want Gore to run again. If he does, he will face a crowded field of opponents, unlike 2000, when many potential rivals decided not to challenge him. If Gore does not run, then the race will be anyone's to win.

As always, party rules dictate the pace of early activity. The Democratic Party voted last month to change its primary and caucus calendar. Iowa and New Hampshire retain their favored spots at the front of the line, but other states now can schedule their primaries in February 2004, rather than waiting until March.

South Carolina Democrats already have voted to move their primary to early February, and other states are expected to do the same. The potential candidates are taking note. Kerry and Edwards plan to speak to the South Carolina Democratic convention this May, while Gephardt will address the Arizona Jefferson-Jackson Day dinner, conscious that Arizona likely will be one of the early contests two years from now.

California remains a Mecca for Democratic political money, which is part of the draw for the politicians this weekend. Daschle and Gephardt will raise money for their respective party campaign committees to fund House and Senate candidates this fall. Kerry too will be raising money for his reelection campaign. But the impressions they make and the networks they create will be crucial to financing a costly presidential campaign.

The other lure is California's vast pool of delegates, the largest prize available to a presidential candidate. California politicians are considering whether to move their primary from early March to sometime in February 2004. If they do, the race for the Democratic nomination will favor the candidate who can appeal to the party's left-leaning constituencies and spend the millions required to air television commercials to reach voters.

Bush's soaring approval ratings have done nothing to inhibit potential Democratic candidates. That's a sharp contrast to a decade ago, when then-President George Bush's Persian Gulf War-driven ratings scared away some prominent potential Democratic challengers, including Gore and Gephardt.

"The lessons of '92 have been fully learned by every Democrat," said Jim Jordan, executive director of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. "Seven years from now is an awfully long time [to wait to run]."

Gore is perhaps the only candidate exempted from the need to spend most weekends now meeting activists in key states, given his experience as a former vice president and the 2000 nominee. For Kerry and Edwards, the least-known of the potential candidates, it is essential.

But even for the Senate's leader, Daschle, it is important.

"Having never run for president, having never run for office outside of South Dakota, the number of senior Democratic activists who have shaken [Daschle's] hand and looked him in the eye is relatively small," said one Democratic strategist who worked for Gore in 2000. "Only Gephardt has extensive experience in that."

The Democrats have taken another lesson from the past. As the Republicans proved last time, a winnowing process will take place well before the first votes of 2004 are cast. Former vice president Dan Quayle, former Tennessee governor Lamar Alexander, former labor and transportation secretary Elizabeth Dole and others quit the race by the fall of 1999, having failed to develop the financial and political support needed for the primaries.

For the potential Democratic candidates, early polls, the support of key constituencies and the capacity to raise money constitute the first tests for 2004. While that won't begin until after this fall's elections, the first impressions the Democratic hopefuls make this year will help shape the contest.

Since the beginning of the year, Gore, Gephardt, Daschle, Kerry and Lieberman have delivered speeches designed to set them apart from their rivals, the beginning of an ideological jockeying that will establish where they want to stand on the political spectrum. Lieberman has staked out the center-right, Gephardt the center-left, with the others somewhere in between.

Edwards, who other Democrats said may be the most intense about exploring a candidacy, said he has had "a wonderful time" making the rounds, whether at town hall meetings in his home state of North Carolina or in the living rooms of New Hampshire. "It was real life as opposed to standing at a microphone or in front of a television camera," he said.

Not everyone would agree that being trailed by a C-SPAN camera crew and at least half a dozen reporters early in 2002, as Edwards was in New Hampshire, is real life. But then nobody said running for president was exactly normal, either.

Sen. Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.) speaks yesterday at the California Democratic Convention in Los Angeles, which also drew three other prominent Democrats who are potential candidates for the party's presidential nomination in 2004.