Are we there yet?
In the crowded race for the presidency, the voters' first job is to narrow the field to one candidate per party. Here's a guide to how the uniquely American system of primary elections works.
Dueling for delegates
Each party has a certain number of delegates from each state, proportional to its population. To win the nomination, a candidate needs one more than one-half of all delegates.
Democratic total includes 800 superdelegates -- elected officials who support the candidate of their choice, regardless of the popular vote. These include House and Senate members, governors, Democratic National Committee members and certain others. More than 400 of these have already endorsed Gore, giving him a fifth of the delegates he needs to win.
Democrats vs. Republicans
Under Democratic rules, delegates are chosen based on proportion of the vote by district; a recognized candidate winning at least 15% of the vote within a district gets at least one delegate from that district.
In some states, allotment of Republican delegates is also proportional to the vote, but party rules also allow winner-take-all system, in which the candidate who gets the most votes is awarded all of that state's delegates.
Large states are important because they have the most delegates.
Early primaries or caucuses are important because they generate the most media coverage and are seen as a test of candidates' electability.
Jan. 24: Iowa
Importance: First contest in the nation, first gauge of voter sentiment.
Process: In Iowa's caucus system, voters attend evening meetings in party precincts to discuss issues and express presidential preferences -- Republicans by private ballot, Democrats by dividing up into groups.
Feb. 1: New Hampshire
Importance: From 1952 to1992, either the Democratic or Republican winner of this primary invariably was elected president.
Process: Open primary in which independents can request either a Democratic or a Republican ballot.
Feb. 19: South Carolina
Feb. 22: Arizona, Michigan
Importance: Early tests of GOP challengers' viability; results may determine whether the front-runner can be challenged.
Process: All are presidential preference primaries open to registered Republicans.
March 7: California, New York, 14 others
Importance: One of two Super Tuesdays; the day with the most delegates at stake.
Process: California has far more delegates than any other state -- 162 Republican, 434 Democratic (including 67 superdelegates). In California's open primary, voters can back candidates of any party, but only registered party members' votes count toward delegate selection. The Republican who gets the most votes receives all 162 delegates; Democrats allocate theirs based on each candidate's share of the vote.
In New York's primary, Republican rules have excluded all but Bush from the ballot in many precincts. Washington holds a wide-open "blanket primary," but the votes don't count toward delegates;
they are chosen in
March 14: Texas, Florida, four others
Importance: Super Tuesday II, featuring primaries in six Southern states, including delegate-rich Texas and Florida; if nominations aren't yet settled, these primaries will almost certainly decide them.
Process: All are primaries for registered party members except Texas, where independents may request the ballot of either party.
March 21: Illinois and beyond
State contests continue until June 6, but once nominations are wrapped up the focus shifts to a two-man race.
Primaries by month
Am. Samoa, Ariz., Del., Guam, Virgin I., P.R., Mich., N.D., S.C., Va.
Calif. (Mar. 7), Colo., Ct., Fla., Ga., Ill., La., Maine, Md., Mass., Miss., Mo., N.Y., Ohio, Okla., R.I., Tenn., Texas, Utah, Vt., Wash.
Democrats abroad, Am. Samoa, Ariz., Del., Hawaii, Idaho, Mich., Minn., Nev., N.D., P.R., S.C., Wyo.
Kan., Pa., Wis.
Alaska, Va., Virgin Islands
Ark., D.C., Ind., Neb., N.C., Ore., W. Va.
Alaska, Hawaii, Ky., Idaho, Nev.
Ala., Mont., N.J., N.M., S.D.
The primary season ends with
the formal nomination of the winning candidates at national party conventions, where delegates also approve party platforms.
Democratic National convention
Staples Center, Los Angeles
Republican National convention
July 29-Aug. 4,
First Union Center, Philadelphia
Sources: Associated Press, Democratic Party, Republican Party
Written by Karl Kahler, illustrated by Tracie Tso -- Mercury News