The next 98 days is a time of testing for the men and women running for the Republican presidential nomination.

With the field — largely — settled, the three months between Memorial Day and Labor Day amount to the first extended period in which the candidates have to learn to interact with each others and, more importantly, voters. This is when the race truly begins.

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There will be — at least — three debates during this time, one in New Hampshire, one in Nevada and one in Iowa. The candidates will report their fundraising totals on July 15, a genuine make or break moment for some. And then comes the Ames Straw poll on August 13 in Iowa, the first real test of grassroots energy and organizational heft for the wanna-be nominees.

With all of that activity on the horizon, it’s worth looking at where the race stands today and where it’s likely to head in the next 98 days.

At the moment, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney is the race’s frontrunner — a position strengthened by the recent decisions by former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee and Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels not to run.

“Romney has been runnin

g an incredibly disciplined campaign, not allowing external forces to determine the strategy or timeline they think is best,” said Christian Ferry, a Republican strategist who served as deputy campaign manager to Sen. John McCain’s 2008 presidential bid.

Romney, who raised more than $10 million on a single day earlier this month, is almost certain to go for a shock and awe fundraising filing in July — a showing that will, at least temporarily, strengthen his hand as the leading candidate for Republicans.

If Romney as the race’s frontrunner appears more settled so too are the second tier of candidates aiming to be the alternative to him.

“The big factor I am seeing is Republican voters don’t want to go down the road again of picking the ‘next one in line,’” said Ed Goeas, a Republican pollster not aligned with any presidential campaign. That phenomenon coupled with the Massachusetts health care plan Romney signed as governor, have created “a ceiling in the high twenties at best” for the frontunner, Goeas added.

Former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty currently holds the pole position to be the anti-Romney, having benefited over the last few months from a combination of hard work and luck. Without Huckabee in the race, Pawlenty is now well-positioned to win Iowa’s caucuses, a victory that would catapult him to instant credibility in the New Hampshire primary and beyond.

Less predictable but potentially more intriguing is former Utah governor Jon Huntsman who returned from his post as ambassador to China for the Obama Administration less than a month ago but appears to be all but in the race.

Working for Huntsman is his personal wealth, his relative newness on the national stage and a foreign policy expertise currently lacking in the field. Working against him is his time spent working for Obama as well as his support for civil unions and cap and trade energy legislation — positions that have created the idea that he is the moderate in the race.

For Huntsman, more than any other candidate in the field, the next 98 days will be essential in determining whether he is a contender or a pretender for the nomination as he seeks to turn buzz and solid staff hires into committed voters in early states.

“Electability is going to matter,” predicted GOP consultant Alex Castellanos. “That means, unless the field changes, only one of these three can win the nomination.”

The rest of the field is, largely, jumbled at the moment although Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, who is expected to announce her candidacy next month, is deserving of special mention since she is regarded by many as a potential winner of the Iowa caucuses. Most GOP observers believe Bachmann lacks the capacity or message strength to build a win in Iowa into a broader push for the nomination, however. The other question is whether former House Speaker Newt Gingrich can recover from a disastrous start to his presidential bid to become a legitimate factor in the race.

And then there are the candidates-in-waiting (or not). With polling suggesting that large numbers of Republican voters are unhappy with the current field, there is constant chatter about a late-entrant swooping into the race and changing the calculus. “There will be a flavor of the week from now until fall,” said GOP strategist Matt McDonald.

At the top of that list is former Alaska governor Sarah Palin whose Memorial Day weekend bus tour is stoking speculation about her renewed interest. Palin has set not timetable for a 2012 decision, however, and even those close to her know next-to-nothing about her future plans.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry has opened the door on a bid but his closest allies still cast doubt on the idea. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie has remained adamant that he won’t run.

Ninety-eight days from now Palin, Perry and the rest of the fence-sitters will either be in or out. Romney is likely to still be the frontrunner on Labor Day with Pawlenty’s status as the establishment alternative dependent on his fundraising and showing in the Ames Straw poll. Huntsman will have proven himself to be a boom or a bust by then. Gingrich will have bounced back — or not. Bachmann will be an Iowa frontrunner or an also-ran.

Stay tuned. It going to be a doozy.

 
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