The next 60 days may be the most critical in the Republican presidential primary race before the Iowa caucuses next year. In that time, the first significant fundraising numbers for the quarter ending June 30 will come out. The Ames straw poll will be held. Texas Gov. Rick Perry will likely get in, or not. Other hold-out candidates will do the same. There will be a debt ceiling deal, or not. There will be two more months of unemployment figures.

Consider different scenarios for two candidates who have the most to lose and the most to gain in the next couple of months.

Take a look at Tim Pawlenty. He could come in fifth (behind Mitt Romney, Michele Bachmann, Ron Paul, and even Jon Huntsman) in the money race and then place poorly in Ames. That would effectively relegate him to the second tier of candidates or even bounce him from the race. As a supporter of another candidate put it, “Pawlenty has been running for president for two years. He has regularly argued that he is a first-tier candidate. The media has designated him a first-tier candidate. Now it’s time to put up first-tier money.” Alternatively, he could beat expectations in the money race, finish in the top two in Ames, get an influx of cash and establish himself as the leading not-Romney candidate.

Then there is Bachmann. She could lap the field in the money race, win the Ames straw poll, give some top-flight policy speeches, dissuade Perry from running and become Romney’s principle adversary. Then again, she could under-perform in Ames, stumble in the debates and recede into the group of fringe candidates.

Meanwhile, the landscape for the general election may dramatically change either for the better or for the worse. If the economy continues to slide, the debt crisis (with panicky bond purchasers) looms larger, Libya and Afghanistan begin to unravel and congressional Democrats begin attacking the White House, President Obama becomes the most vulnerable incumbent since Jimmy Carter. But if employment surges, a far-reaching debt deal calms the markets, Moammar Gaddafi is killed or exiled and Afghanistan looks stable, the Democrats can breathe a sigh of relief.

A former defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld would say, these are the “known unknowns.” When you factor in the unknown unknowns, it becomes obvious that it is impossible to predict how both the GOP primary and the general election will look as summer draws to an end. Anyone who tells you differently is selling snake oil. And any candidate who rests on his (or her) laurels, or any potential candidate who decides not to run because there isn’t “room in the race,” is very, very foolish.