Doyle McManus | Lining up and dreaming of the presidency

Is it too early to think about who’s running for president in 2016, three years from now?

Not in Washington, a city with more campaign consultants than dry cleaners.

After all, we’re talking about a business that raised and spent more than $2 billion, employed thousands of people and consumed more than two years of planning, fundraising and campaigning during the last presidential election.

And that was for a race in which Democrats knew who their nominee would be. This time, both parties have a wide-open field, at least in theory.

Some of the politicians being talked about are unlikely to run, but that doesn’t mean they don’t love to hear their names mentioned.

A presidential campaign is long, expensive, punishing and sometimes even humiliating. But a presidential flirtation is none of those things. A politician’s prestige and power only grow when he or she is mentioned as White House material.

So who is being mentioned?

Let’s start with the Democrats. Former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has opened a prohibitive lead in the early polls, with support from 66 percent of Democratic voters in an NBC poll released Tuesday, against 14 percent for all other candidates combined.

That’s a much bigger lead than Clinton held in polls three years before the 2008 campaign. And Clinton even has a campaign organization in waiting, a group called Ready for Hillary, which, though not officially authorized, is raising money, commissioning polls and collecting names of volunteers.

But none of that has stopped Democrats from talking about other possible candidates.

This week’s heartthrob was Sen. Elizabeth Warren, of Massachusetts, who starred in a long article in the New Republic that cast her as everything thoroughgoing progressives could want.

Warren insists she isn’t running. The Boston Globe quoted the senator as saying: “No, no, no, no, no.” But that ambiguous wording “leaves Warren plenty of room to start running if she chooses,” the Globe noted.

Democratic campaign strategists have reason to think about potential alternatives: Clinton’s health remains a question mark. She collapsed from exhaustion last year during her final months as secretary of state. If she decides not to run for personal reasons, her party will need someone in the wings.

Luckily, there are several Democrats who think they ought to be considered. Vice President Joe Biden stands ready; former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean has talked about running; and Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley is angling for a place in the race.

Meanwhile, Republicans in Iowa are having a difficult time scheduling enough dinners to accommodate all of the potential candidates who want to visit in advance of the state’s 2015 straw poll.

Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas, Marco Rubio of Florida and Rand Paul of Kentucky have already dropped by; so have former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania and Gov. Rick Perry of Texas.

About the only big-name Republicans who haven’t visited Iowa recently are Govs. Chris Christie of New Jersey and Scott Walker of Wisconsin, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t serious contenders.

“We’re in the age of the Fox News primary now,” one GOP strategist told me. “Candidates don’t have to go to Iowa every week.”

Christie jumped to the top of the polls with his landslide re-election in New Jersey this month. And as the new chairman of the Republican Governors Association, he’ll soon oversee a war chest that could top $140 million for statehouse campaigns next year.

But Tuesday’s NBC poll revealed a potential problem for Christie, the most moderate of the leading Republican possibilities: His appeal may not travel outside his home turf.

The New Jerseyan drew support from 57 percent of Republicans in the Northeast but only 22 percent of Republicans in the West.

The GOP strategist – who asked not to be identified, partly because he hasn’t committed to a candidate yet – predicted a three-way race among Christie, Walker and Paul.

David Carney, who managed Perry’s 2012 campaign, thinks it’s still too early to predict who the front-runners will be.

“Any time you have an open seat, lots of people are going to want to test the waters,” he said. “I’d bet we have 20 people see what the market’s like” — and that’s just on the Republican side.

His list of potential candidates also includes Ohio Gov. John Kasich, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, Santorum and Perry.

“We’ve had an heir apparent in almost every presidential race since Eisenhower,” Carney noted of the GOP, which has frequently given its nomination to a candidate who came in second place before. “That’s not true this time.”

Do any of those candidates look like presidential material? Not to former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, who looked at the field this week and sniffed: “There’s no Ronald Reagan.”

But one or two of them will grow on us. They always do.

By this time a year from now, several of those names will have made their candidacies official. By this time two years from now, they’ll be campaigning in earnest for the Iowa caucuses.

And by this time only three years from now, we’ll have elected a new president — at which point we’ll start speculating about the 2020 race.