As we move into 2018, speculation over who will emerge as the 2020 Democratic nominee for president will begin in earnest. 

In my view, the early front-runner is U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, the Independent socialist from Vermont. Coming seemingly out of nowhere in 2016, Sanders gave Hillary Clinton a run for her money for the Democratic nomination. 

Sanders was a major force — winning 23 states and garnering more than 13 million votes. He was the champion of the progressives and younger voters. On the campaign trail he spoke passionately about income inequality and a “rigged” system. His message resonated with a significant percentage of the Democratic base, and his supporters were enthusiastic and energetic.

Since losing the primary to Hillary, Sanders has worked at getting closer to labor unions and has been polishing his foreign policy credentials. Sanders’ main obstacle may be his age — he will be 79 on Election Day in 2020.

Which brings me to Sen. Elizabeth Warren from Massachusetts.

Warren, a former Harvard law professor, is the darling of the Left and a leading contender for the 2020 nomination. Her no-holds-barred style and her attacks on banks and the financial industry have ingratiated her to the progressives of her party. In addition, she is one the fiercest and most vocal critics of President Trump.

In short, she’s a fighter. And like Sanders, she is working on her national security credentials. Not long ago, she became a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

At the time of the next election she will be 71, but that is three years younger than President Trump will be.

Making the much-needed generational change for the Democrats at age 47 is Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey — one of three African-Americans now in the U.S. Senate. 

He came to the Senate in a special election 2013, and was elected to his first full term in 2014. Make no mistake, Booker is a rising star in the Democratic Party. He’s telegenic and media-savvy. 

Booker’s not reflexively anti-business — and could be a bridge between the center-left and the progressives in the party. On the downside, he may be seen as too close to corporate America for base of the Democratic Party.

Another rising star is Sen. Kamala Harris, serving in her first term from California. She is the daughter of an Indian-American mother and a Jamaican-American father.

Many women across the political spectrum consider her a barrier-breaker in that that’s she was the first black elected to the U.S. Senate from California. She also was the first black woman elected as attorney general in the Golden State.

In July 2017, Harris met in the Hamptons with many of the Clintons’ biggest donors, fueling speculation of her further ambitions.

Rounding out the field are Hillary Clinton, who continues to make news, along with Govs. John Hickenlooper of Colorado and former Gov. Terry McAuliffe of Virginia — both key swing states. 

Other honorable mentions should include former first lady Michelle Obama; former Vice President Joe Biden; former 2016 vice presidential nominee Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia; Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Sen. Kristen Gillibrand of New York; and billionaire environmental activist and major Democratic donor Tom Steyer.

One thing is for sure: We can expect to see many of the contenders here in North Carolina in 2018, as the Tar Heel State is now a must-stop on the road to the presidency.

Marc Rotterman is host of “Front Row,” a weekly public-affairs program on UNC Public Television. Follow him on Twitter @FrontRowMarc.