By Friday afternoon, the preliminaries will be over and members of the Republican National Committee (RNC) gathered at the Capitol Hilton here in Washington will choose a new party chairman.

If history is any guide, it will be a long and perhaps brutal session as six candidates seek the GOP chairmanship. Most expect multiple ballots and some are predicting that the likely winner may not even emerge until the third or fourth ballot. When Jim Nicholson was elected chairman back in 1997, he didn't even take the lead in the voting until the fourth ballot and then "backed in" on the next ballot as the early favorites cut deals or left knowing that their moment had come and gone.

Even Haley Barbour, widely regarded as the best RNC chairman in recent decades, needed five ballots to defeat the competition. Thus, first-ballot commitments are in many cases less important than commitments from RNC members who agree to abandon their first choice after a ballot or two if things don't work out as they'd hoped and throw their vote to another.

The contenders at this point include the current RNC chairman, Mike Duncan of Kentucky, who was essentially anointed by Bush operatives and kept on by the McCain people after the convention, and who presided over the 2008 debacle. Duncan is personally popular and a longtime RNC member who is credited with doing a good job raising funds for the party under difficult circumstances, but was in charge when the ship went down in November. Many RNC members think that he has a duty to step aside regardless of their friendship with him or the job he did under terrible circumstances.

The odds are that, on the first ballot at least, Duncan will get more votes than any of the others, but the real test is whether his support will grow or collapse on subsequent ballots, as his opponents are hoping. They all know that he's the man they have to beat.

The candidate who has perhaps gotten the most public attention is Michael Steele, of Fox fame. Steele, a former Maryland lieutenant governor and state party chairman, is well-known in party circles as head of GOPAC and because of his regular appearances as a commentator on various Fox News Channel programs.

He is seen as friendly and articulate, and while not currently an RNC member, was once a member of the club. His problem and strength — on the first ballot, at least — is that he's the only contender who has taken a position antithetical to the conservative majority on the RNC. It's not quite as simple as this, because many votes will be cast for non-ideological reasons, but Steele does have an edge with committee centrists that should help him on the first ballot. His problem is that there aren't enough of them to reach a majority, and if he holds on long enough to where he's in a race with one rather than four or five conservatives, he could be in real trouble.

Former Ohio Secretary of State Ken Blackwell is, like Steele, an African-American, but is a strong conservative who has a great many admirers on and off the committee, but he's never been a member of the committee and may not have the staying power to hang on until the end.

The two current committee members besides Duncan who are running are less well-known by outsiders, but each harbors the belief that he can hang on and ultimately win.

They are Katon Dawson of South Carolina and Saul Anuzis of Michigan. If Steele falls away early and Blackwell can't hold on, one of these two will emerge as Duncan's chief opponent on the third or fourth ballot. Dawson is a Southerner who, as the South Carolina GOP chairman, can claim that he knows how to win, while Anuzis is banking on his aggressiveness and knowledge of the technological weapons the Democrats currently seem better able to enlist on their side to convince his fellow RNC members that he is just what the party needs.

Anyone who suggests before Friday morning that they know how this race will end doesn't really know what he or she is talking about. Right now the candidates and their representatives are seeking deals and alliances and members are being asked for their support on the third or even fourth ballot.

The party chairman is potentially far more important today than when Republicans held the White House and Congress. He has to keep his troops together, prepare them for the next battle rather than the last, be able to raise the millions the party will need to be competitive and deliver the party's message effectively to his own folks and an interested public.

If he can do all that, and if the Democrats make a few mistakes, the winner of Friday's race could be looked back on in a few years as having been in the same league with Haley Barbour, who told one committee member lamenting that there are "no Haley Barbours" out there that he should remember that when he was elected, he wasn't "Haley Barbour either.”

Keene is chairman of The American Conservative Union, whose website can be accessed here.