With three more presidential debates scheduled and a quarterly fundraising report due, the next five weeks loom as do-or-die time for some of the lesser GOP candidates trying to make enough of an impression to stay in the race.
The starting gun for the post-Labor Day sprint was fired Wednesday night at the Ronald Reagan Library in Simi Valley, Calif., where Texas Gov. Rick Perry introduced himself to a national audience and appeared with his GOP rivals on the same stage for the first time since entering the race last month.
Attention now turns to back-to-back debates upcoming in Florida and another on Oct. 11 in New Hampshire - just days before candidates are required to file third-quarter fundraising reports.
Taken together, the events will go a long way in "separating the wheat from the chaff," said Patrick Griffin, a senior fellow at the New Hampshire Institute of Politics at Saint Anselm College. "This is sort of like opening day in baseball - and clearly the first pitch has now been thrown."
Mr. Perry has reshaped the race since entering three short weeks ago. The three-term governor has grabbed the lead in national polls, generating a slew of story lines suggesting that the nomination will be decided between him and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.
Meanwhile, Reps. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota and Ron Paul of Texas are jockeying for the third spot - leaving political insiders to ponder just how long the rest of the field can avoid the fate of former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who became the first to drop out after a disappointing showing in the Ames Straw Poll last month.
Michael McKenna, a GOP strategist, said big-money donors are growing anxious over the size of the field and hope it will soon be winnowed down to Mr. Perry and Mr. Romney, so they can decide where to hedge their final bets.
"They are not sold on either of those characters, but with all the cross talk going on with all the candidates, it is hard to figure out who to support," he said, adding that one big fundraiser recently asked him point-blank, "When does everybody get out of the race here so we are in a two-person race?"
Others say it could be awhile.
"I think we could lose at least one candidate, but I don't think we will lose a Rick Santorum, a Herman Cain or a Newt Gingrich," said Michael Dennehy, a veteran New Hampshire GOP strategist. "They have such lean operations, I think they are going to stay in it until at the very least Iowa, if not New Hampshire."
Mr. Griffin and Mr. Dennehy agreed that former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. may have the toughest time sticking around, especially if he fails to gain traction in the coming weeks.
"He is a different animal and different situation entirely," Mr. Dennehy said. "He has been saying all along, 'Give me time, give me time,' and he's changed strategies three times from my last count. I just think the window is closing for him."
After beginning with high hopes and a message of GOP unity, the Huntsman campaign has fallen flat and moved into attack mode, taking aim at Mr. Romney's jobs record as governor of Massachusetts and labeling Mr. Perry and Mrs. Bachmann as too "extreme" to win a general election.
The electoral picture looked much different last month after Mrs. Bachmann won the Ames Straw Poll and appeared to be on the verge of solidifying herself as a top contender.
But Mr. Perry's entry stole some of her thunder and some of her support.
Mrs. Bachmann also announced this week that Ed Rollins was vacating his spot as campaign manager in favor of a senior adviser position and that David Polyansky, her deputy campaign manager, left the campaign.
Charlie Cook of the Cook Political Report said that people are overreacting to the shake-up in the Bachmann campaign, and that she's not likely to fall anytime soon.
"I don't think her candidacy is on the ropes at all right now, but she obviously is going through a tough patch," Mr. Cook said. "I think Michele Bachmann has some very real political skills and I think she is still going to be a formidable contender, and that she and Perry are going to be competing for that sort of tea party/social conservative wing of the party."
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