WASHINGTON — It was a chaotic summer for the unruly pack of 17 major Republican presidential contenders.
Surges and slides. Millions of dollars raised and spent. Policy debates, insults hurled.
Labor Day marks a new phase in the campaign, when voters traditionally start paying closer attention and the candidates sharpen their strategies.
With Iowa voters set to open the primary voting calendar in less than five months, look for the candidates to take their voter outreach to the next level, both on television and direct campaigning.
In a field this large, there will be no shortage of story lines to monitor in what could be the most wide-open Republican primary season in a generation.
Some things to watch from Republicans this fall.
TRUMP TRUMP TRUMP
Donald Trump rocketed into front-runner status and has shown remarkable staying power. Can he keep it up when voters start paying more attention?
Political veterans in both parties are skeptical, yet the billionaire businessman has repeatedly proved the conventional wisdom wrong.
A public relations master, the former reality television star aims to continue dominating the GOP debate as his competitors struggle for attention.
WHAT CAN $100 MILLION DO?
Trump may be leading the polls, but many Republican officials still consider former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush the most likely candidate to win the nomination, if only because of his massive bank account.
Bush faces sinking poll numbers, frustrated donors and growing questions about his campaign strategy.
The good news? His campaign and allied super political action committee have yet to spend very much of their $100 million fundraising haul on advertising.
That’s about to change.
In September alone, Bush and his allies plan to spend more than $20 million on a national advertising campaign. Bush aides insist they’re not panicking about his summer slump. If the September advertising blitz doesn’t help his numbers, they may start.
WHO WILL BE THE FIRST TO LEAVE
It’s only a matter of time before the field begins to narrow. Who will be the first to go?
Speculation has begun to swirl around former Texas Gov. Rick Perry. He stopped paying the majority of his campaign staff in August because of fundraising difficulties.
Yet like many candidates, Perry has an allied super PAC that has raised millions of dollars to help keep him going. Some also think Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul may be considering an early exit to focus on his re-election to the Senate next fall.
It wouldn’t be a surprise to see one of the lower-tier candidates get out, among them former New York Gov. George Pataki and former Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore.
TONING IT DOWN
Led by Trump, several candidates have spent the summer offering harsh rhetoric against immigrants who are in the country illegally. The strong language comes in defiance of the GOP’s recommendation after a disastrous 2012 election to embrace a softer tone on the issue.
Trump may have generated the most attention when, in his campaign announcement speech in June, he described Mexican immigrants as criminals and “rapists.”
But most of his rivals are demanding a wall along the Mexican border and many are challenging “birthright citizenship.”
Even Bush, whose wife was born in Mexico, embraced the term “anchor babies.”
If the GOP doesn’t change its tone, the party may struggle to win swing states with surging Hispanic populations, such as Colorado and Florida, no matter who’s on the ticket.
Everyone likes an underdog story, and with a Republican field this large and talented, it’s only a matter of time before someone exceeds expectations.
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson already have shined for a time.
Will they surge again? Will another candidate emerge?
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie has elite political skills. Former technology executive Carly Fiorina exceeded expectations on the night of the first GOP debate. Tea party firebrand Ted Cruz, a Texas senator, may be in line to inherit some of Trump’s following should Trump start to slip.