After years of planning and months of campaigning, Republican and Democratic candidates now face a brutal five-week run where voters in some 30 states will decide which standard-bearer will be their party's nominee for the White House. It is a schedule that has forced the campaigns to re-evaluate strategies and spending habits as they plot how to navigate the early voting month of January.
Traditionally, campaigns have had several weeks after the holidays to gear up for early voting contests. In 2004, these nominating contests led to a major 10-state vote held in early March.
But with early contests in Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina in the first three weeks of 2008 and more than 20 states voting on Feb. 5, early campaign momentum has become more critical and more accelerated than ever.
"With the increased front-loading, it's very hard to do what candidates were able to do in previous years, which was start out and build from a small base and then raise the money to compete the next week," said Bruce Oppenheimer, a professor of political science at Memphis, Tennessee's Vanderbilt University.
Some candidates, such as GOP hopeful and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, have been focusing their campaign strategy around the early contests for months.
"Romney's strategy clearly is to win big early," Arthur Sanders, a political science professor at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa.
While the heavy focus on early voting states may give a candidate a needed boost, the strategy can be toxic should the campaign underperform in one of those contests.
"If (Romney) doesn't win, you might see a Howard Dean fizzle-out," Sanders said, referring to the decline in campaign momentum for popular Democratic candidate Howard Dean in 2004 after a disappointing third-place finish in the Iowa caucus.
Even before the first votes are cast, though, some of the 2008 competitors have managed to create less traditional movements on the trail.
The campaign for Republican Rep. Ron Paul, a libertarian-leaning Texas Republican, raised just over $8 million by the third quarter and blew through its goal of $12 million in the fourth quarter -- raising more than $6 million in just one day on Dec. 16 -- largely through grassroots and Web-based efforts. Paul campaigners are hoping the new resources will give them the momentum needed for the congressman to compete in later contests.
"We’ve been up strong in Iowa and New Hampshire," said Jesse Benton, national press secretary for the Paul campaign. "We're considering what buys we might do in Florida, some in Nevada and South Carolina."
The campaign is also hiring hundreds of staffers across the country, beefing up their offices in California and New York, Benton said.
Although their unorthodox efforts have brought the Paul campaign large sing-day numbers, the money behemoths of the race -- such as Democrats, Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., and Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., -- have raised funds that have topped all records. Both raised over $80 million total by their third-quarter fundraising reports, allowing them to expand their campaign offices and buy television ads across the country.
"Obama opened up a campaign office in Nashville," Oppenheimer said. "It's saying, 'I've got the resources to set up in Tennessee'" -- one of the smaller states set to vote on Feb. 5.
Obama and Clinton's funds give them an advantage over Democratic contender and former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards, who trailed them in fundraising by nearly $50 million in the third quarter.
"If Obama or Edwards were to win here [in Iowa], then Obama has the money to go on, and Edwards would have to raise the money to go on," said Sanders.
In a last-minute push, Clinton appears to be banking on the traditional TV ad -- at an untraditional length -- to appeal in Iowa. The night before the caucuses, Clinton will make a taped, two-minute appearance that will air during evening newscasts statewide. The candidate is reported to be spending more than $20,000 on the pitch.
Still, not all the top-tier candidates are betting on big wins in early states.
GOP contender former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani has devoted minimal time campaigning in New Hampshire and spent even less time in Iowa, choosing instead to conserve his resources for a push in later contests in South Carolina, Florida and Nevada.
Standing five weeks after Iowa, the Super Tuesday primary where voters in 22 states will cast their ballots stands as a possible make-or-break national contest. Many analysts expect nominees to emerge that day, but some caution should one party nail down its nominee, the other party may face a serious challenge.
"Feb. 5 may not resolve things," Oppenheimer said. "If the Democrats are able to end things on Feb. 5 and the Republicans can't, then (the Democrats) can use funds effectively run a general election campaign on primary funds."
Fourth-quarter fundraising reports, which will be filed at the end of the December, will reflect financial power among the contenders as voters head out into snowy evenings throughout Iowa and New Hampshire to pick their candidates.
And while campaigns may be cooking up new techniques and strategies -- from spending time in tiny Iowa coffee houses to posting irreverent YouTube videos -- the power of the old-fashioned, albeit expensive, commercial buy is expected to remain a popular campaign method.
According to a New York Times article, PQ Media, which tracks political advertising, estimates that spending for political messages on television, radio and other media is expected to reach a record $3 billion in the 2008 cycle.