WASHINGTON — It’s the defining ritual of American democracy: the peaceful transfer of presidential power.

Though the outcome of the White House race is still days away, planning for the transfer is well under way.

As Republican Mitt Romney leapfrogs from swing state to swing state, a robust operation with multiple teams totaling more than 100 people is at work in Washington, laying the groundwork for a potential GOP takeover of one-third of the government.

President Barack Obama has planning to do, too, even if he gets to stay in office. Led by his chief of staff, Jack Lew, Obama’s team is quietly making plans for a second term.

It’s a critical and time-honored process without which an incoming president would be at a loss to take the reins, just weeks after being elected, of the behemoth that is the U.S. government.

But it also could be a potential exercise in futility for the eventual loser.

Romney’s transition team, nicknamed the “Readiness Project” and led by former Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt, has been toiling away since the summer — long before they moved in early September into government digs in an unremarkable, gray building near the Capitol. Designated offices for the president-elect and his second-in-command await Romney and running mate Paul Ryan should they claim victory on Nov. 6. Furniture, computers and office supplies are provided by the government.

One Romney aide compared the process to manufacturing a car: Build the mechanical structure now, so that if Romney is elected, it’s ready to go. Then all that’s left to decide is who gets to go along for the ride.

That’s no easy chore. There are thousands of people to appoint — Cabinet secretaries, ambassadors, U.S. attorneys and more. Some jobs require Senate confirmation, others don’t. Resumes already are flooding in for job offers that won’t be extended until after the election.

While one team handles personnel, other units are tackling the policy decisions that await Romney, if he wins, in the initial months after the election. There’s the so-called “fiscal cliff” looming at the end of the year, a one-two punch of spending reductions and expiring tax cuts. Although the next president won’t be inaugurated until Jan. 21, Romney hopes to have a say in how Congress tackles that and other issues. Congressional aides said Romney’s transition team already has met with top House Republicans, including Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy of California and Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia.

Then there’s the crucial first few months of the presidency, a period chock full of self-imposed deadlines stemming from campaign promises. A special team is dedicated to prepping for the first 200 days of Romney’s administration. On his first day alone, Romney has vowed to label China a currency manipulator, approve the Keystone XL oil pipeline and start the process of repealing Obama’s health care law.

Another unit is putting together a dossier on each federal agency, including who works there, the size of the budget and what issues will carry over. Another aspect of the transition is preparing to halt any pending or existing Obama policies, such as regulations or executive orders, still in the pipeline if Romney takes over.

Obama is making plans, too. As with Romney, how much of Obama’s second-term agenda will be feasible rests largely on the makeup of Congress after the election. In the meantime, a number of Cabinet secretaries and high-level officials, including Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner, are expected to depart after the first term, creating critical vacancies the president will have to fill.

Romney’s campaign wouldn’t discuss the transition for the record and insisted on anonymity to avoid being perceived as “measuring the curtains” before Romney has sealed the deal.

It’s long been standard protocol for presidential hopefuls to prepare for months before inauguration. In 2010, Obama signed legislation encouraging candidates to start early by giving them access to government resources as soon as they accept their party’s nomination, which usually happens in late summer of an election year.

Romney’s team also has sought advice from Clay Johnson, who led George W. Bush’s transition in 2000.

Eight years later, Bush assigned a team in early 2008 — almost a year before his second term ended — to ensure that whoever won the election that November would have what they needed for a smooth handover, said Dana Perino, his press secretary.

“There was an emphasis on national security, of course, because terrorists tend to strike when they think your attention might be focused on something else,” Perino said.

Romney’s skill in managing large bureaucracies — he made millions acquiring and turning around major companies — may come in handy. Those involved in the transition said they weren’t surprised that Romney already has set up a corporation-like structure.

If Romney wins, the already bustling pace of his transition will intensify overnight. His campaign operatives, confined for now to the campaign trail and his Boston campaign headquarters, will descend on Washington and mesh with a transition team eager to put their planning into action.

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