WASHINGTON (AP) – Indiana Sen. Evan Bayh, a Democrat with a record of political success in a Republican-leaning state, intends to take the first official step toward a 2008 presidential campaign early next week, officials said Friday. Bayh’s plans include creation of a presidential exploratory committee, as well as appearances Monday in Iowa and next weekend in New Hampshire, two early states on the campaign calendar.

Bayh would be the second Democrat to take a formal step toward a presidential campaign. Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack is already in the race. Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York and Barack Obama of Illinois are among numerous other potential rivals who are expected to decide within a few weeks whether to run.

Republicans also are likely to have a crowded field of contenders. So far, only Sen. John McCain of Arizona and former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani have created exploratory committees, which permit fundraising to finance a candidate’s travels.

The officials who described Bayh’s plans did so on condition of anonymity, saying they had not been authorized to discuss them.

As a member of the Senate Intelligence and Armed Services committees, Bayh was one of the first Democrats to support military action in Iraq. But in December 2005, he changed his position, saying he would not have supported legislation authorizing the invasion if the facts the Bush administration used to support the move had been presented to him accurately.

Bayh, 50, has charted a centrist’s course throughout his political career, including two terms as governor and eight years in the Senate. He also has served as chairman of the Democratic Leadership Council, which is a prominent voice for moderation within the party, and has helped establish the centrist New Democrat Coalition.

Elected governor in 1988, he was the first Democrat in 20 years to hold that office and – at 33 – the youngest state chief executive in the United States.

Bayh was often referred to as a “Republicrat” who courted the middle. He never raised taxes and he left office with a humming state economy, low unemployment and a record budget surplus.

His approval rating was an astonishing 79 percent in a state that hasn’t voted for a Democratic presidential nominee since Lyndon Johnson’s 1964 landslide.

He drew national notice, too, as his tenure neared an end. Bayh was tapped to give the keynote address at the 1996 Democratic National Convention.

He was elected to the Senate two years later.

In recent years, Bayh voted against confirmation of Chief Justice John Roberts as well as Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito; opposed legislation to open a portion of an Arctic wildlife refuge to oil drilling; supported a comprehensive immigration bill that included a path to citizenship for millions of men and women in the country illegally.

Bayh is the son of Birch Bayh, who won three terms in the Senate from Indiana before losing his seat in the Republican landslide of 1980.

With two years until the presidential election, potential candidates from both parties have been busy ramping up their organizations. Vilsack is in the midst of a cross-country tour to launch his campaign, and Obama discussed a possible bid with his top advisers during a meeting in his hometown of Chicago on Wednesday.

On the Republican side, Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney has scheduled a trip to Asia next week to beef up his foreign policy credentials. Kansas Sen. Sam Brownback is expected to announce soon whether he will move forward with his presidential ambitions.

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