A few stragglers may still be mulling over their prospects, such as the Rev Jesse Jackson for the Democrats, and the mayor of New York, Rudolph Giuliani, for the Republicans. But in the view of the Washington cognoscenti, they may already have left it too late. Almost two years before the victor crosses the threshold of the White House, the list - two Democrats and 10 Republicans - is regarded as closed.
As of this week, the Democratic nomination is being contested by Vice- President Al Gore and Senator Bill Bradley of New Jersey. Among the Republicans who have thrown their hats into the ring, aside from Mr Bush and Mrs Dole, are Senator John McCain of Arizona, the conservative campaigner Gary Bauer, former Vice-President Dan Quayle, and the millionaire publisher Steve Forbes.
The exceptionally early declarations for the 2000 election reflect two realities of the coming campaign. This is the first "open" contest for the presidency - with no incumbent running - since the Bush-Dukakis election of 1988 at the end of Ronald Reagan's two terms. And because the last Congress failed to agree on the need for legislation, the campaign will be conducted without the benefit - or hindrance - of new limits on campaign financing, putting acute pressure on all candidates to raise as much money as possible as early as possible. The absolute minimum quoted is $20m (pounds 12.8m).
A precondition of being able to raise funds - which will start to sort out the probables from the possibles in the large Republican field - is to have a convincing team in place. Mr Bush, as the distinguished and diverse composition of his exploratory committee showed, and Vice-President Gore, rather less publicly, are both ahead of the field in this respect.
Apparently realising that she risked looking tardy by comparison, Mrs Dole brought forward her announcement of her exploratory committee to tomorrow, when she will be in the Iowa capital, Des Moines.
An additional factor in the early start to the campaign is the move by a number of big states, including California, to bring forward the primary elections at which the parties select their candidates. In the past, Iowa and New Hampshire have led the pack with caucuses or primaries in February. Now, other states are demanding an early say on the presidential candidates, hoping to command the same sort of attention and influence as the two "advance" states. The result is likely to be the earlier selection of the contestants and a possibly uncomfortable gap between the selection of the candidates and their "coronation" at the party conventions in the summer of 2000.
The Republican field will be whittled down well before next year's primaries as the would-be candidates compete for funds. If each needs a minimum of $20m for their bid to be plausible, the chances of Bob Smith, the New Hampshire Senator who was one of the first to declare his candidacy, are already rated slim to negligible, while the right-wing commentator Pat Buchanan and Lamar Alexander, the former governor of Tennessee, and John Kasich, an ambitious Congressman from Ohio, are not expected to get far.
George W Bush, thanks to his impressive record as Governor of Texas and his famous name, is far and away the favourite for his party's nomination, although he is still insisting that he will decide finally whether to run in June. Elizabeth Dole, thanks to her famous name and national prominence is a not-too-close second. Neither, however, has campaigned at national level before, and the more experienced members of the Washington punditocracy note that either could trip up on policy questions, if not on the sort of scandal that almost thwarted Bill Clinton's presidential bid in 1992.
Mr Bush has already fallen foul of some sections of the party, including the religious right, which has an influence in the primaries that is out of proportion to its influence among Republican voters in the country, and may be enhanced in the wake of the Lewinsky affair.
Any candidate - Mr Bush included - has to surmount the hurdle of the primaries before presenting himself to the electorate and a Republican candidate who can survive the primaries may not be the same candidate who would be embraced by the country.
Although it is taken for granted at this stage that the Democratic nomination is Al Gore's for the taking, there are rumblings in the party ranks about his electability. He is running as much as 20 points behind Mr Bush in polls that ask voters whom they would prefer as president in a Gore-Bush contest.
So while many analysts are already confidently forecasting a Gore-Bush contest in 2000, others insist that neither nomination is as certain as it appears - even if the candidates' list is, to all intents and purposes, closed.
GEORGE BUSH and Al Gore are the front runners. Mr Bush's "compassionate conservatism" doesn't wash with key elements of the party machine. Elizabeth Dole is still a distant second.
Mr Gore is still perceived as a wooden Indian. The more important the charisma factor becomes, the poorer his prospects.
Senator John McCain of Arizona, a maverick Vietnam war hero, can not be written off, but Bob Smith, the New Hampshire Senator who was one of the first to declare his candidacy, ought to be.
The right-winger Pat Buchanan has twice failed to win the nomination already - and Lamar Alexander, the former governor of Tennessee, is unlikely to survive the primaries.
Ohio Congressman John Kasich, the conservative campaigner Gary Bauer; former vice-president Dan Quayle, and publisher Steve Forbes all fancy their chances more than they should.
Key to prospects
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