For GOP Hopefuls, Labor Day Weekend Marks Start of 2012 Sprint

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Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney speaks during a business roundtable at The Common Man in Claremont, New Hampshire on Wednesday, August 24, 2011. (Andy Jacobsohn/MCT)

After a spring of embarrassing ephemera (remember Donald Trump’s painful presidential flirtation/publicity tour?) and a summer of high-octane campaign kickoffs (Michele Bachmann, Jon Huntsman) that haven’t sustained much momentum, Labor Day marks the real start of the race for the Republican presidential nomination. Barring any late entrants into the fray, the GOP field seems set. It also seems relatively stratified. Rick Perry and Mitt Romney are poised to slug it out in the top tier. Michele Bachmann and Jon Huntsman are hoping early triumphs (in Iowa and New Hampshire, respectively) can boost them to national viability. Ron Paul is running a respectable third in some national polls but lacks an opening in any of critical early states. And the rest of the pack is just clinging to the dream or the bully pulpit, burning money and time as they criss-cross the country consumed by unquenchable ambition.

The Labor Day candidate map tells us much about each contender’s perceived path to the nomination. Huntsman, who outlined his economic agenda on¬†Wednesday¬†in New Hampshire, will hang around through the weekend, hoping to gain traction in the state he has to win to boost a campaign lagging in last place. Paul’s also hopscotching the Granite State Friday, and over the weekend the Tea Party Express bus tour rolls into town, where it will host Romney Sunday night — in his first major overture to the movement — and Fox News pundit Sarah Palin on Monday. Palin’s weekend itinerary, crafted with an eye toward torturing titillating the press corps into writing a fresh batch of “will-she-or-won’t-she” stories, also includes — for now — a Saturday speech in Iowa.

The weekend’s marquee event, however, is in South Carolina, where Senator Jim DeMint will host a Labor Day forum for most major candidates: Romney, Bachmann, Perry, Paul, Newt Gingrich and Herman Cain. DeMint, a Tea Party kingmaker from a state whose primary winner has gone on to capture the Republican nomination in each campaign since 1980, will grill each in turn.

The one to watch is Romney. Not just because the former Massachusetts governor is stepping out of his comfort zone and venturing into Tea Party territory on consecutive days. He’s also doing it as his front-runner status, which allowed him to spend the summer coolly stocking his war chest as rivals struggled, evaporated with Perry’s entrance into the race. Joe argues national polls are “near-meaningless” at this point, and that may be true. But it’s hard to argue Romney is in a better spot now than a month ago, when analysts crowed that he could find himself one-on-one with Bachmann and coast to the nomination. It will be fascinating to watch how he handles the scrutiny of a heavier campaign schedule and a brash rival far less likely to wilt under the media spotlight. On Tuesday in Las Vegas, Romney will lay out his plan to jump-start the sputtering economy, a theme that has been at the center of his criticism of President Obama but which has, to this point, been sketched only in very broad strokes.

A Romney-Perry race is hardly foreordained, of course. John McCain’s campaign was written off early; ditto for John Kerry’s. An unlikely candidate could catch fire; a late entrant could change the calculus once again. All we know for sure is that after a slow summer, the race is about to begin in earnest.