Take seven candidates and add thousands of activists, multiple ballots and convoluted voting rules. Subtract the usual campaign factors such as statewide ads and reliable polls.

That’s this year’s Republican race for lieutenant governor in Virginia.

The state GOP will gather in Richmond in five weeks to winnow the crowded field down to a nominee. The winner will face either former U.S. chief technology officer Aneesh Chopra or state Sen. Ralph S. Northam (Norfolk) after the Democrats crown their choice in a June 11 primary.

Although the state’s gubernatorial race between Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli II (R) and businessman Terry McAuliffe (D) is bound to overshadow the contest, whoever is elected lieutenant governor will preside over the evenly divided Senate and be a leading contender for governor in four years.

“Normally Virginia’s lieutenant governor” post is a “one-way ticket to oblivion,” said Stephen Farnsworth, a political science professor at the University of Mary Washington. “This election cycle, the lieutenant-governor race is likely to be vital to the future direction of the commonwealth. The lieutenant governor breaks the ties for most legislation in the Senate, and senators do not face the voters for two years.”

Each of the seven candidates is targeting slightly different geographical or ideological niches. And because Republicans decided to forgo a primary for a convention, the race will turn on the whims of a few thousand Virginians on May 18 rather than the larger statewide electorate.

“I would say [the race is] almost impossible to quantify,” said former state senator Jeannemarie Devolites Davis (Fairfax).

Davis is joined in the race by Chesapeake minister E.W. Jackson; Del. L. Scott Lingamfelter (Prince William); state Sen. Stephen H. Martin (Chesterfield); technology entrepreneur Pete Snyder; Corey A. Stewart, chairman of the Prince William Board of County Supervisors; and Susan Stimpson, chairwoman of the Stafford County Board of Supervisors.

Their hurdles are not insignificant. Stewart and Lingamfelter are dividing the same county. Davis, the wife of former congressman Tom Davis (R-Va.), has to beat back conservatives, who say she is too moderate. Martin, Jackson and Stimpson have fundraising ground to make up. And Snyder is positioning himself as an “outsider” even though he is a former political consultant with close ties to state and national Republicans.

Davis said she is right-leaning enough while “understanding that you have to have a balanced ticket” given Cuccinelli’s stance as a solid conservative. Davis also said her campaign has been “targeting ethnic minority delegates,” particularly among Northern Virginia’s sizable Asian American population.

Stimpson, meanwhile, said she is the only conservative woman in the race, emphasizing her fiscal record in Stafford and appealing to tea party activists. She said the upside of holding a convention is that “you can’t dodge with millions of dollars on TV or a slick campaign brochure. The people who attend this convention are going to do their research.”

Snyder, the founder of the technology marketing firm New Media Strategies, is putting a heavy emphasis on outreach via social media. “I think that the Republican convention-goers are incredibly informed, incredibly savvy and wired to the hilt,” said Snyder, who calls himself “the only proven real-world job creator in the race.”

Under Republican Party rules, each Virginia city or county will get a certain number of delegate votes at the convention — regardless of how many people show up — based on how many GOP ballots were cast there in the last presidential and gubernatorial elections. (For example, Fairfax County will have 1,382 votes, and Emporia City will have six.)

Several candidates say they have the most delegates committed to supporting them across the state, but vote-counting at this stage is notoriously tricky. Some delegates might pledge to vote for one candidate, then cast their ballots for another. Or they might tell a campaign that they plan to attend the convention, then decide not to.

“It’s not just breadth of support, it’s depth,” Stewart said. “People have better things to do than go to a dark convention hall in Richmond.”

Stewart says he thinks he has an advantage because he has “been at this race by far the longest.” Fellow Prince William candidate Lingamfelter — whose voting record has been targeted with anonymous mail and robo-calls — highlights his “leadership credentials,” including his service in the military.

“I’ve won in seven elections in a swing district in Northern Virginia as a conservative, a staunch conservative,” Lingamfelter said.

If no candidate gets more than 50 percent on the first ballot, the bottom two will be eliminated. The second ballot will eliminate two more candidates, and then the next two ballots — if necessary — will each drop one, leaving a winner. So candidates aren’t just asking for delegates’ votes. They’re also asking to be considered as a second or third choice.

One aspect of the contest will become clearer Monday, when campaign fundraising reports covering the first quarter of the year are due. Jackson trailed the field financially in the last round of reports, but he is regarded as a charismatic speaker who could sway some last-minute votes his way with a strong convention speech.

“We think we’ve got a good shot at persuading the delegates who are there” in the convention hall, Jackson said.

Campaigning for a convention nod may not be easy, but Martin says he believes the selection method has its advantages.

“You do not tear each other down like you do in a primary” because candidates form alliances during the balloting, he said. “It’s somewhat easier to rally together after a convention.”