Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.) seemed best-positioned late Tuesday to emerge victorious in the race to be the House majority whip. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

A tightening three-way race for House majority whip, the chamber’s third-ranking position, will enter its final stretch Wednesday morning when the contenders address a closed forum in the Capitol basement, making short speeches to their colleagues a day before Thursday’s leadership elections.

With Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) expected to easily win the contest to succeed Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.), the gathering will be center stage for an intensifying debate over whether House Republicans should move further to the right following Cantor’s defeat in a primary.

It also will be a critical test for a trio of ambitious lawmakers who have spent days vying for an office that has been a launching pad for past holders, some of whom have gone on to serve as speaker.

Across the House, Republicans are divided, with Pennsylvania’s close-knit delegation meeting with the candidates Tuesday evening but unsure about whom they will back. As he left the House chamber, Rep. Lamar Smith (Tex.), who has been in Congress for more than two decades, said Texas Republicans also are “split about what to do.”

Rep. Steve Scalise (La.), the well-connected chairman of the Republican Study Committee (RSC), seemed best-positioned late Tuesday to emerge victorious, arguing that his roots and right-wing views make him a natural choice for the influential but wavering blocs of Southerners and tea party conservatives.

Rep. Peter Roskam (R-Ill.), the mild-mannered chief deputy whip, is also in the running. (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

Yet the race is far from decided, with Rep. Peter Roskam (Ill.), the mild-mannered chief deputy whip, and Rep. Marlin A. Stutzman (Ind.), a youthful conservative voice, gaining.

“We’ve got two days left, so it’s down to the wire,” Scalise said after he wrapped up meetings at his office Tuesday afternoon. “I see the undecided votes breaking our way — we got a lot of them today.”

Walking to his office, Roskam projected similar confidence. “We have good momentum,” he said. “I’m encouraged and this doesn’t get decided until Thursday.”

Meanwhile, Stutzman was seen working the floor, talking in hushed tones to Rep. Mo Brooks (Ala.) in the back rows of the House and courting the vote of Rep. Patrick Meehan (Pa.).

Because Speaker John A. Boehner (Ohio) and McCarthy are considered by many conservatives to be less combative Republicans from a purple state and a blue state, respectively, Scalise has been playing up his regional appeal, making the case that more geographical balance is needed in the upper ranks as well as more of an ideological edge.

“I’m from a red state and I believe it’s very important to have one of us in there at the leadership table,” said Rep. Renee L. Ellmers (N.C.), a Scalise supporter. “Steve is going to be the whip from the red states, speaking for us.”

Scalise has worked to balance conservative fervor with nods from more establishment figures, such as Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (Wash.), the House Republican Conference chairman and the chamber’s fourth-ranking Republican; Rep. Tom Cole (Okla.), a Boehner ally; and Rep. Aaron Schock (Ill.), who many thought would support fellow Illinoisan Roskam.

Rep. Marlin A. Stutzman (R-Ind.), a youthful conservative voice, is gaining. (Uncredited/AP)

Scalise’s advisers said he has more than 100 votes on his side, putting him close to the 117 needed to win 51 percent of the 233-member House GOP conference. Roskam’s allies said he has nearly 90 votes, while Stutzman’s supporters said he was hovering around 50.

All three camps, however, acknowledged that their counts were fluid, and with the vote occurring by secret ballot, no one could be certain about how much support they had.

If no one reaches 117 votes on the first ballot, the top two finishers will move on to a second ballot. Aides to the candidates said that they think a second ballot probably will be necessary and that they are planning for that scenario, asking members not only to share their preference but also to confide whom they would side with on a second vote.

Roskam and his associates have brushed aside Scalise’s pitch, telling members that his experience and even temper, especially in a time of tumult within the party, is a plus.

“He’ll run the trains on time,” said Rep. Richard Hudson (N.C.), a captain for Roskam’s whip team. “We’re getting to where we need to be. A few days ago, we were at 60 votes and Scalise was at 100; now we’re at 90 and Scalise is still at 100. And we’re collecting a lot of support for the second ballot. That’s our strategy.”

Roskam flew back to Washington from Chicago at dawn Tuesday and started making calls in the car from Reagan National Airport. To bolster his conservative bona fides, he has begun to frequently cite the late Henry Hyde, his mentor and House predecessor, who was a champion of antiabortion policies.

Reaching out to Southerners in an attempt to eat into Scalise’s base is another part of his campaign. On Tuesday, Roskam’s backers from the South sent a letter to fellow Southerners touting Roskam as a “devout Christian” and “solid conservative.” This followed a Roskam letter that promised to appoint a “red state” deputy should he win.

“Peter knows what he’s doing, he’s our chief deputy whip already, so it’d be an easier transition,” said Rep. Diane Black (Tenn.). “And remember, just because you’re from a blue state doesn’t mean that every district there is blue or purple.”

Stutzman has found it difficult to attract widespread notice. He started his campaign late last week and quickly won the support of some conservatives who have had differences with Scalise’s management of the RSC, a 173-member caucus of conservatives. But his base is mostly composed of Republican hard-liners and some friends from the large sophomore class, which was the core of tea party wave of 2010, including Reps. Mick Mulvaney (S.C.) and Tom Reed (N.Y.).

Stutzman arrived late to the Capitol on Tuesday, missing the confab with the Pennsylvania delegation, but he did meet later with several Pennsylvanians on the floor. He also attended a closed late-night gathering of his class. Rep. Sean Duffy (Wis.), a gregarious former reality television star, has helped Stutzman reassure moderates that he could work well with them.

Stutzman, little known before entering the race, also is winning votes from those who think Scalise has been too cozy with the leadership, particularly on a recent flood insurance bill opposed by many conservatives but backed by Cantor, and by those who wish Scalise did not shake up the RSC’s staff and operations after taking the reins.

“I keep looking for a kind of rapport,” said Rep. Steve King (Iowa), who is undecided. “We’ll have to see what everybody says on Wednesday.”