Phase One, the period in which candidates were only just beginning to enter the race. During the summer, we wrote about Phase Two, when the field took shape and candidates started hammering out their initial strategies.
Now Phase Three is about to begin. This period, lasting roughly from September through December, is critical. For the first time, voters in the early primary states (particularly Iowa and New Hampshire) will start paying close attention to the race. Up until this point, only a small number of politically-minded individuals were watching the race. Now everything the candidates do and say will be seen by the people who will vote in February's primaries. As for the rest of the country, they will remain tuned out for the rest of the calendar year.
During Phase Three, the campaign is much more intense. There are three debates scheduled for this month. That's more debates than were held during the previous three months combined. The field is also more well-defined. If Chris Christie and Sarah Palin decline to enter the race, this will be the first month that began with all of the candidates already in the race.
Aside from potential late-entrants like Christie, Phase Three is when the race is less about adding candidates and more about eliminating candidates. Tim Pawlenty decided to quit last month due to his performance in the Ames straw poll, and he may be the only candidate who officially quits for some time. After all, what could happen during the months of September or October that convinces a candidate to quit? But just because a candidate is officially in the race doesn't mean he's truly considered a contender. During the next few months, the polls and political commentators will determine how many candidates are really in the race.
During 2008, the Republicans had many high-profile candidates vying for the nomination. That's unusual. In 2000, for example, the Republican primary was widely considered a two-man race between George W. Bush and John McCain. The Democratic primary was also considered a two-man race (between Al Gore and Bill Bradley). There were others running, but all of the attention focused on the men who had a real chance of winning the nomination.
It's likely that a similar process will occur during Phase Three. If Rick Perry maintains a decent lead over Michele Bachmann in Iowa, Bachmann's supporters may shift over to Perry by the end of this calendar year. By that point, the media will characterize the primary as a two-man race between Perry and Mitt Romney. The other six candidates will be deemed irrelevant, all before the first vote is cast in Iowa. But even supposing Bachmann remains competitive in Iowa, the media may view the race as a three-man contest--which still eliminates a majority of the contestants.
The challenge for the competitors who aren't Romney, Perry, or Bachmann is to use the debates to make sure voters still view them as viable. Only a standout performance like Mike Huckabee's in 2008 will be enough. The good news is that the voters will be watching.