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Republican Senator John McCain edged closer to a 2008 White House run and Democrat Russ Feingold took himself out as would-be candidates began positioning for a wide-open race to succeed President George W. Bush.
The end of the congressional midterm election, which happened last Tuesday, traditionally marks the start of the presidential campaign season, and several prospective nominees wasted no time signaling their inclinations.
McCain, a Republican from Arizona, said Sunday he was taking the initial steps for a White House bid, setting up a committee that allows a potential candidate to raise money and travel the country to gauge support. He unsuccessfully sought his party's nomination for president in 2000.
Democratic Senator Joe Biden reaffirmed his intention to seek his party's nomination, though an announcement about establishing an exploratory committee probably will not come until early next year.
And the campaign lost one possible participant when Feingold, a Democratic senator from Wisconsin, decided against a long-shot run.
The anticipated wide-open campaign will be the first since 1928 without a sitting president or vice president in the mix of candidates. Bush has served the maximum two four-year terms and Vice President Dick Cheney has made it clear he will not run.
McCain, considered the front-runner for his party's presidential nomination, said he could create an exploratory committee as early as this week, but won't make a final decision about running until early next year.
"Are we doing the things organizationally and legally that need to be done? Yes," he said. "There are certain things legally you have to comply with in order to continue to raise money and set up an organization."
"The important thing is we will not make a decision until I sit down with my family, but we will be prepared," McCain said.
Republican officials last week said McCain would set up an exploratory committee and has opened a bank account for the committee.
On Sunday, McCain characterized the moves as preliminary until he decides over the holidays about a possible bid.
If McCain were to run, he would turn 72 on Aug. 29, 2008, at the height of the campaign. Only Ronald Reagan was older - 73 at the start of his second term. McCain's health also could be an issue; he has had several cancerous lesions removed from his skin.
McCain is a former Navy pilot who was a prisoner of war in Vietnam. He was elected to the Senate in 1986, and served in the House for four years before that.
The 63-year-old Biden, who is line to take over as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee when the new Democrat-led Congress convenes in January, also ran for president before. But he left the 1988 race after it became known he had lifted a portion of a speech from a British politician without attribution.
Biden, first elected to the Senate in 1972, said Sunday he would address the issue of an exploratory committee early in 2007.
One potential challenger he will not have to contend with is Feingold, who said he wanted to focus on his work in the Senate. Feingold, 53, is an outspoken opponent of the Iraq war and other Bush administration policies.
"I never got to the point where I felt strongly I wanted to run," Feingold told The Associated Press. "Then I saw the result Tuesday and thought what a great opportunity to do my work in the Senate."
Last week, Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack announced his candidacy, becoming the first Democrat to do so. Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York is widely considered the party's front-runner.
Others mentioned include Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts, the 2004 nominee; former Senator John Edwards of North Carolina, the vice presidential nominee two years ago; Senators Barack Obama of Illinois, Evan Bayh of Indiana and Christopher Dodd of Connecticut; and New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson.
Obama, the lone black senator, "has done an enormous amount for the party," said Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean, adding that in his job he must stay "entirely neutral."
Republicans talked about for 2008 are Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney; Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee; Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, Senator Sam Brownback of Kansas and former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani.
Republican Congressman Duncan Hunter of California, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said last month he is forming an exploratory committee.
McCain appeared on NBC's "Meet the Press," Dean was on "Fox News Sunday" and Biden spoke on "This Week" on ABC.
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