Former U.S. Sen. George Allen greets attendees April 18 at the 64th annual Shad Planking in Wakefield, Va. Allen is campaigning for the Republican nomination for the U.S. Senate seat he lost in 2006. (Steve Helber/AP)

When Virginia’s Senate race first took shape last year, it looked like George Allen was going to have a fight on his hands.

The former senator and governor faced multiple opponents for the Republican nomination to try to succeed retiring Sen. James Webb (D), all of whom argued Allen was too much of an “insider” and insufficiently conservative to deserve the nod in the tea party era.

Yet with the first of three GOP debates taking place in Roanoke on Saturday and the primary seven weeks away, Allen looks like the prohibitive front-runner over Bishop E.W. Jackson, Del. Robert G. Marshall (Prince William) and former Virginia Tea Party Patriots head Jamie Radtke. Barring a major upset June 12, Allen will face former governor Timothy M. Kaine (D) in a much-watched November matchup.

The competitive primary never materialized because Allen’s foes never raised enough money, never persuaded outside groups to wade in on their behalf and never coalesced behind one contender.

“Everybody’s got their own agenda,” lamented David Donis, the chairman of the Hampton Roads Tea Party and a Radtke backer. “If the goal was really to beat Allen, I would have guessed some of the weaker candidates would have bowed out or not entered the race at all.”

Jennifer Duffy, who analyzes Senate races for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, said it was telling that conservative groups such as Club for Growth and FreedomWorks, which regularly wade into contested Republican primaries, are sitting this one out.

“The reason is fairly simple: They don’t have a problem with George Allen,” Duffy said. “They know this isn’t a race they can play around with. Kaine is a strong candidate and they need someone who can match him.”

Allen has given little indication that he feels threatened. He has almost completely ignored his primary foes, focusing his attention on criticizing Kaine and President Obama. But Dan Allen, an adviser to George Allen’s campaign, said that “from the beginning of this race [we’ve] taken nothing for granted, and we’ re certainly not going to take the next five or six weeks for granted. We’re going to continue to work right until the end.”

None of Allen’s opponents is ready to concede the race, and they see Saturday’s debate in Roanoke — with two more scheduled for May 11 in Virginia Beach and May 25 in Falls Church — as a key opportunity to take the front-runner down a peg.

“It’ll be good because a lot of people will hear the message and realize there’s an alternative for the first time,” Radtke said.

Radtke said she has built a much stronger grass-roots organization than Jackson or Marshall, making Saturday’s showdown less important for her than it is for them. “I’m looking forward to the opportunity, but my campaign doesn’t live or die by the debate,” she said.

Radtke’s campaign touts the fact that her fundraising has grown each quarter. Yet even with that progress, her March 31 campaign account balance of $80,000 paled in comparison to Allen’s $2.7 million. (Marshall lagged further behind, with just $12,000 on hand, while Jackson had $6,000.)

Marshall, for his part, still believes Allen is a weak general election candidate for the same reason some Republicans wanted to challenge him in the first place — his record during his previous term as a senator included some votes that are anathema to conservatives.

“Do the Republicans want to hear a campaign like that, of former senator Allen having a difficult time defending his record?” Marshall asked.

Because of his high-profile clashes in the state House, with both Democrats and Republicans, Marshall contends that he has the statewide name identification among GOP primary voters to compete with Allen. (It’s difficult to tell where any of the three contenders stand versus Allen because there have been no recent public polls of the primary.A Washington Post survey taken a year ago gave Allen 54 percent of the vote in a hypothetical primary and several other candidates 4 percent or less.)

Marshall might have improved his chances had he entered the race earlier than January. Marshall said he waited to decide until he could see the shape of his House seat under the new district map.

Duffy suggested Marshall, who also ran for Senate in 2008, might be running again this year not because he’s confident he can win, but “to expand his presence in the legislature” or to simply thumb his nose at the party establishment.

Jackson, a lawyer who founded Exodus Faith Ministries in Chesapeake, calls himself “an unpackaged non-politician who speaks from the heart,” and he believes that outsider status will help him pull an upset on the front-runner.

“I don’t like to make this personal about George Allen, but I do hear disenchantment with politics as usual,” Jackson said. “I think clearly George Allen is the person most likely to suffer from that sentiment.”

Allen campaign adviser Dan Allen dismissed those criticisms, saying the former governor’s “solutions and ideas” were “resonating across the state,” particularly among Republicans.

Regardless of how competitive the June 12 primary is, Donis of the Hampton Roads Tea Party believes Saturday’s debate will be useful because “it’s going to pull Allen to the right. He can’t flip-flop so quickly back to the center.”

Looking ahead to the general election, Donis said, Allen is “not my first choice, and I think a lot of people feel that way.”

But if the November ballot features Allen and Kaine, he says he’ll vote for Allen.