NEW YORK — Sen. Sam Brownback is a conservative Methodist from Kansas, a state not known for its diversity. But Tuesday, he was preaching to a choir far from his geographic and political base -- headlining a meeting of Jewish Republicans in Midtown Manhattan.
Two blocks away, New York Gov. George E. Pataki was cracking baseball jokes over breakfast in a hotel ballroom with New Hampshire GOP activists. He was followed minutes later by Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee, who reminded the audience of his frequent visits to the Granite State.
The appearances were part of a subplot at this week's Republican National Convention, a story line playing out in the back hallways of Madison Square Garden and hotel ballrooms across the city. Two months before President Bush faces the voters for reelection, the jousting to succeed him four years from now has begun within the GOP.
"The campaign never ends," said Ruth Griffin, 60, a convention delegate from Portsmouth, N.H., who was not the least bit surprised to witness the parade of White House wannabes visiting her delegation's breakfasts and receptions in hopes of finding friends in the home of the first-in-the-nation primary.
"It's old hat for us," she said.
Some unusual circumstances have made for an especially wide-open Republican field for '08, spurring some of the party's lesser-known contenders to begin working the circuit.
Vice President Dick Cheney, who has suffered several heart attacks, has said he has no intention of seeking the top job. The president's brother, two-term Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, is skipping the convention and signaling that he's not interested (though doubts persist that he ultimately will take a pass). And one of the party's biggest stars, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, is forbidden from running by a constitutional requirement that presidents be born citizens of the United States.
The 2008 mix has some household names -- such as Sen. John McCain of Arizona and former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani -- but also contains a growing number of more obscure prospects.
For all involved, the early jockeying requires a careful dance for hopefuls, who don't want to appear as though they are putting their own ambitions ahead of what remains a tight presidential race this year.
"If you had somebody coming in very overtly courting their support for a 2008 bid, that wouldn't be received very well," said Gentry Collins, executive director of the Iowa delegation (the state's caucuses kick off the nomination races).
Frist, for instance, assured reporters Tuesday that he was addressing the New Hampshire delegation purely because the state is a battleground between Bush and Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts, the Democratic presidential nominee.
Pataki said the same thing, calling his appearance a continuation of his 2004 efforts "for a great president."
Still, there were hints of possible things to come.
Frist wore a lapel pin bearing the slogan "New Hampshire: A Proven Primary Tradition." He told his audience that he supported letting New Hampshire keep its status as the nation's first primary state.
"I admire the town meetings, the ability to interact personally," Frist said. "I respect it. It makes politics fun."
And Frist reminded the group of a visit he made to their state in January, primary season -- when the temperatures were frigid and a water leak interrupted his speech. A return trip in 2008 would mean again enduring temperatures rarely felt by a Tennessean -- but Frist noted that he had lived in Boston as a medical resident for 10 years, and said he could handle it.
Sen. Charles Hagel (R-Neb.), one of the lesser-known of the potential '08 candidates, was less coy.
"There's always implications anytime you drive through Iowa or New Hampshire that someone is preparing a presidential run," said Hagel, a Vietnam veteran who bucked the GOP establishment in 2000 by supporting McCain in the primaries against Bush. "I've been very forthright on that point. I've said I will make a decision on a political future one of these days."
Hagel showered both the Iowa and New Hampshire delegations with flattery.
"You shape and mold the process; you shape and mold the outcomes from start to finish," he told the New Hampshire group Monday.
Earlier in the day, he told the Iowans, "How you put your imprimatur at the front end of the process is absolutely important and is critical," he said.
Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, another White House prospect, got some key exposure in New Hampshire when he introduced Bush during a campaign stop Monday.
He addressed the Iowa delegation Tuesday and will address the Republican Jewish Coalition today. He also recently published a book, "Turnaround: Crisis, Leadership, and the Olympic Games," promoting his stewardship of the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City.