Sen. John F. Kerry (Mass.), who for the past six years used his Senate reelection committee to lay the groundwork for a presidential bid, has taken an early lead in the fundraising contest for the 2004 Democratic nomination.

Former House Democratic leader Richard A. Gephardt (Mo.), who did much the same with his reelection committee, is positioned to soon match Kerry's $2.5 million, aides said.

In the battle for cash that will dominate the early stages of the Democratic nomination fight, political strategists generally agree, however, that Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (Conn.) has the strongest potential base of fundraising support through his demonstrated appeal to Jewish contributors nationwide.

Together with Senate Democratic leader Thomas A. Daschle (S.D.), these four are, according to operatives handicapping the presidential race, the most likely to be able to raise enough cash in 2003 -- campaign estimates vary widely from a low of $15 million to a high of more than $30 million -- to be fully competitive going into the intense primary and caucus contests of early 2004.

Kerry and Vermont Gov. Howard Dean have filed presidential exploratory committees allowing them to begin raising money for a race, and in coming days there will be a flurry of activity involving the other likely Democratic candidates, with Sen. John Edwards (N.C.) expected to make an announcement Thursday. Gephardt and Lieberman are expected to follow shortly, aides said. Daschle met with advisers yesterday, and according to one Democratic source is "definitely leaning toward doing it" but may not announce a decision for at least a week.

The ability to raise large amounts of money has been a crucial factor in determining winners in presidential primary contests, and the accelerated schedule of primaries and caucuses in early 2004 has heightened the importance of the 2003 competition for dollars. With many states moving their primaries into the first quarter of 2004, the winner is likely to be determined by mid-March.

The withdrawal of former vice president Al Gore from the 2004 race has opened up the contest for cash. Gore had by far the largest base of loyal fundraisers built up during the 2000 campaign, and now all the candidates are seeking them out. Gore's exit has raised the possibility that 2004 will start with two or more evenly financed candidates, heightening the chances for a competitive race.

In every election from 1980 to 2000, the candidate who raised the most money by the start of the election year went on to win the nomination. Michael J. Malbin, executive director of the Campaign Finance Institute, pointed out that the political frontrunner is always the leading fundraiser, and these two are strong advantages to have in nomination fights that are increasingly determined in an early rush of caucuses and primaries, all requiring name recognition and lots of money to win.

The closest fundraising contest in recent elections was in 2000, when Gore, with $27.8 million at the end of 1999, barely edged out former New Jersey senator Bill Bradley's $27.2 million, according to CFI data.

In the rest of the emerging Democratic field, Edwards has only one previous election demonstrating his fundraising ability, and in that contest he paid for three quarters of the cost himself, raising a relatively modest $2 million-plus from individual donors in winning his seat in 1998.

A wild card is Dean, whose sharp criticism of the Bush administration's preparations for war with Iraq has positioned him to be able to tap into the Democratic Party's substantial liberal, anti-war base. Dean could face strong competition if Sen. Bob Graham (Fla.), the only potential candidate to vote against the Iraq war resolution, decides to run.

Kerry has taken the early lead because he faced only token opposition in his 2002 reelection bid, and was able to raise $8.7 million. He spent much of it on building a direct-mail donor base, and he saved $2.5 million to transfer to his presidential bid. Gephardt did much the same thing, pulling in $5.7 million to crush a weak Republican challenge, in a contest leaving him with more than $2.5 million for a White House run.

"We have 85,000 names of solid, identified Kerry contributors who gave when he had token opposition, so we are excited about how engaged they will be in the heat of a presidential campaign," Kerry aide David Wade said. "Three-quarters were acquired or renewed in the last two years, and 65,000 have given in the last two years. This is as fresh a list as you can find." Gephardt, in turn, invested slightly less than $1 million in direct mailings.

Although no decision will be made for a year, most of the people working for these declared and prospective candidates indicated that each is likely to accept public money in the primary battles. Dean already has decided he will do so.

There has been considerable speculation that at least one Democrat might reject public spending in order to be free of spending limits and to be better able to compete with President Bush, who is expected to reject public money and raise a phenomenal $150 million to $200 million to win a largely uncontested re-nomination.

Strategists working for Lieberman, who would be the first Democratic Jewish nominee, pointed out that he demonstrated his strength among Jewish donors, a key Democratic fundraising base, in 2000 as Gore's running mate. They cited a large increase in donations to the Democratic National Committee, much of it from men and women who had never given to a political party before, after Lieberman was picked.

Lieberman's adversaries contend that his strengths in the Jewish community are counter-balanced by his weaknesses with two other crucial sources of Democratic money: Hollywood, where Lieberman's critique of sex and violence in the entertainment industry has not been well-received, and trial lawyers, who are wary of a senator whose state is a center of the insurance industry, an enemy of the trial lawyers.

Daschle and Gephardt have long histories of raising millions of dollars for the Democratic Senate and House campaign committees and strong ties to the network of people nationwide who are skilled in putting donor events together. If Daschle runs, he is expected to join Gephardt in giving up his leadership post, and it is unclear how dependent their ability to raise money is on holding the top Democratic posts in Congress.

Gephardt's strength among special interests was demonstrated by a Center for Responsive Politics study of the giving patterns by 100 groups in labor, business and trade associations that contributed the most campaign money. Gephardt led the list of recipients with $3.75 million, well ahead of his closest competitor, Bush, at $3.23 million.

Daschle, Lieberman and Edwards all have money in their Senate reelection committees, although none appears to have as much as Kerry or Gephardt.

Whoever wins the Democratic nomination is likely to face a far-better financed Bush reelection campaign. In 2000, Bush rejected public financing and raised a record $100 million, more than double what candidates can spend in the primaries if they accept tax money. Many observers say that, now in office, Bush will be able to raise at least $200 million, so he will be able to spend four times more than his Democratic opponent before the general election campaign.

Staff writer Dan Balz contributed to this report.

Sen. John Kerry holds an early lead in Democratic fundraising.Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, who has criticized the Bush administration's stance on war with Iraq, may rely on the Democratic Party's anti-war base.Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman has a strong base of support among Jewish contributors.