Showing up first to a party is usually the least cool thing you can do — unless that party is the race for the presidency in 2008, where it's obvious the line to get in is going to get really long, and much more popular (and better-connected) partygoers will get waved in the door ahead of you.
Just a week after the end of midterm elections, focus has already turned to 2008, which will mark the first time in 80 years that a sitting president or vice president is not in the running. Expected Democratic front-runner Senator Hillary Clinton has not yet announced her intention to run — although that announcement is widely regarded as inevitable — but her expected chief rival, 70-year-old Senator John McCain of Arizona, stepped into the ring on Thursday and immediately jumped to the head of a Republican crowd that already features a handful of hopefuls.
McCain's formation of an exploratory committee — which allows potential candidates to raise campaign money without disclosing their donors or spending — sets him up as a rival to former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who filed papers with the Federal Election Commission to form his own exploratory committee earlier this month.
If names like Duncan Hunter, Tommy Thompson and Tom Vilsack don't ring a bell, we've compiled a cheat sheet to get you up to speed on the people — some of whom have announced their intention to run, others who seem likely to do so soon — vying to be the next leader of the free world.
Who: Joseph Biden
Experience: Democratic senator from Delaware has been in the Senate since 1972 and is the top Dem on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, with substantial experience in foreign policy. Elected at the age of 29, is one of the youngest people ever to serve in the Senate.
Pros: Helped pass legislation that increased funding for law enforcement and combating domestic violence. Fought to preserve natural areas in Delaware and provide more college aid and loan programs for families.
Cons: Had to drop out of 1988 presidential race after admitting to borrowing some comments from a British politician without attribution. Is known to be a rather longwinded speaker.
Who: Wesley Clark
Experience: Former NATO Supreme Allied Commander in Europe; military analyst for Fox News and CNN; led campaign against Serbian forces in Kosovo in 1999. Ran as a Democrat in 2004, but has said that in addition to voting for Bill Clinton he's also cast ballots for Republicans Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan.
Pros: Appeals to centrist voters.
Cons: Has never held elected office.
Who: Hillary Rodham Clinton
Experience: Of course, the recently re-elected senator from New York logged eight years in the White House as First Lady. Worked on an unsuccessful health care initiative during the Clinton administration.
Pros: Is universally known and has a substantial fundraising advantage over potential rivals.
Cons: Is one of the most polarizing political figures in the U.S.
Who: John Edwards
Experience: One-term senator from North Carolina who ran for vice president alongside John Kerry in 2004.
Pros: Has charisma, is telegenic and a good speaker.
Cons: Has limited government experience and a tendency to come off a bit too slick.
Who: Barack Obama
Experience: The junior senator from Illinois (and best-selling author) has only been on Capitol Hill for a few years, but he's already established a reputation as something of a political rock star.
Pros: He's Oprah-approved, so far mostly scandal-free (though there are some questions about a land deal he was involved in) and he's seen as less polarizing than Clinton. Also possesses undeniable star power.
Cons: By 2008, his four years in the Senate will be less than John F. Kennedy — the youngest elected president — served before taking office, and his youthful appearance (he's 45) may not help.
Who: Bill Richardson
Experience: Governor of New Mexico, U.S. ambassador to United Nations and secretary of energy under Bill Clinton.
Pros: Latino heritage may help him win votes with the fastest-growing segment of the U.S. population, which Republicans have targeted as a group they need to reach in 2008. Charismatic speaker who's been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize four times.
Cons: New Mexico is not exactly a hotbed of political action.
Who: Tom Vilsack
Experience: Governor of Iowa, one of the first states in the nation to vote during primary season.
Pros: First Democratic governor to be elected in Iowa in 30 years. Did we mention he's from Iowa?
Cons: Not well known, and his name is already drawing sniggers from "The Daily Show."
Who: Bill Frist
Experience: Two-term senator from Tennessee and outgoing Republican leader in the Senate.
Pros: Impressive pedigree as a graduate of Princeton University, Harvard Medical School and a former heart- and lung-transplant surgeon.
Cons: Made some questionable medical and political statements during the battle over the euthanasia of Terri Schiavo. Record as Senate Majority leader is mixed at best.
Who: Newt Gingrich
Experience: Speaker of the House from 1995-1999; helped lead the Republican takeover of the House that ended 40 years of Democratic majorities.
Pros: Beloved by Republicans and conservatives for his public opposition to Bill Clinton and his co-authorship of the 1994 Contract with America, which set out an agenda of conservative governing principles.
Cons: Blamed for helping to spur a government shut-down in 1996 by refusing to submit a revised budget. Still tainted by the 84 ethics charges leveled against him during his term by Democrats — all of which were eventually dropped, but contributed to his polarizing image.
Who: Rudolph Giuliani
Experience: Beloved former mayor of New York who guided the city through the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 terror attacks.
Pros: Earned nickname "America's Mayor" and a Man of the Year nod from Time magazine in 2001; has been credited with reducing the crime rate in New York.
Cons: His stance in favor of abortion and gay rights runs counter to the conservative party line. Dismayed many centrist supporters with his wholehearted embrace of the Bush administration during 2004 election.
Who: Duncan Hunter
Experience: Member of the House for nearly 25 years; former chair of the Armed Services Committee.
Pros: The Californian has a strong reputation on national security and immigration — including supporting a 700-mile fence along the U.S./Mexico border — two subjects that play well to the conservative base.
Cons: Introduced anti-obscenity legislation in 2004 called the "Parents' Empowerment Act" that would have allowed the parents of a minor to sue anyone who distributes material considered harmful to minors. Also, has little or no name recognition.
Who: John McCain
Experience: Former member of the House and current senior senator from Arizona (1987-present). Named one of Time magazine's "25 Most Influential People in America" in 1997. Presidential candidate in 2000.
Pros: A former prisoner of war in Vietnam, McCain has been a leader in the push for lobbying and campaign finance reform, has supported comprehensive immigration reform and has a strong national reputation, beating Hillary Clinton in some early polls.
Cons: Despite appealing to some Democrats with his views on the environment and immigration, McCain has drawn criticism for his continued support of the 2003 invasion of Iraq and recent calls to increase the number of U.S. troops there. If he wins in 2008, will be the oldest person elected president.
Who: Mitt Romney
Experience: Former governor of Massachusetts (2002-2006); organizer of the 2002 Winter Olympics.
Pros: Gained national attention for pushing through state law to make health insurance mandatory, giving him a leg up on one of the nation's most pressing issues. His stand against gay marriage resonates with the Republican base.
Cons: Some political analysts think a portion of voters will be wary of his Mormon faith and predict his health care couldn't work on a national scale.
Who: Tommy Thompson
Experience: Former Wisconsin governor (1987-2001), elected an unprecedented four times in a row and Health & Human Services secretary during President Bush's first term.
Pros: Popularity in key Midwestern swing state; HHS gig gave him national prominence and experience on one of the nation's most vexing issues. He's said he thinks the top issues in the '08 election will be energy and health care, and claims to have some of the best ideas on both.
Cons: Has low name recognition, which could hurt his ability to raise money in a crowded Republican field.