Washington (CNN) – There may be a handful of empty seats on stage Wednesday as Republican National Committee members team up with a leading Tea Party organization to grill the candidates vying to replace Michael Steele atop the party - a reminder that the chairman's race remains wide open with just six weeks left until the election.
The RNC race is shaping up to be a referendum on Steele's controversial tenure, but the chairman, who has kept mum about whether he plans to seek a second term, isn't likely to be in attendance.
And several of those gunning for the chairmanship won't even be in attendance for the candidates forum in Washington.
As of late Tuesday, only three candidates were certain to participate in the forum, which is sponsored by a bloc of conservative RNC members hostile to Steele and the Tea Party-aligned organization FreedomWorks: Michigan committeeman Saul Anuzis, former Missouri GOP chairwoman Ann Wager and former RNC political director Gentry Collins.
The other Republicans seriously contemplating bids – former Bush administration official Maria Cino, Connecticut GOP chairman Chris Healy and Wisconsin GOP chairman Reince Priebus – either won't be in attendance Wednesday or are declining to campaign in public before having a chance to line up core support on the committee.
That's because the RNC race is and always has been an inside game, played out among committee members on phone calls and in hushed hallway conversations, not in the media.
The most pivotal action of this two-day gathering is likely to take place behind closed doors on Thursday, when six potential candidates will be interviewed privately by members of the Republican National Conservative Caucus, a faction of conservatives within the RNC.
Those members will be evaluating each potential candidate according to a list of 13 "Leadership Criteria," measuring his or her fundraising skills, management experience and willingness to work with the Tea Party movement.
Among those slated to participate in the private interviews Thursday are two of the race's highest-profile figures, former Minnesota Sen. Norm Coleman and Priebus, both of whom have been hamstrung by Steele's reluctance to make his intentions public.
Priebus, whom sources say is now leaning toward a bid and could announce by the end of the week, was a key member of Steele's kitchen cabinet until recently, when other members of the committee pressed him to enter the race as a unifying alternative to the controversial chairman.
Coleman, meanwhile, has ruled out a challenge to Steele. But his participation in Thursday's private interview session is a sign that he might still be open to seeking the chairmanship should Steele decline to run.
"As I've stated time and again, I'm not running against Michael Steele," Coleman said in an email to CNN. "I am interested in the direction of the RNC in the 2012 election cycle, and look forward to being involved in that discussion regardless of the specific role I might have."
With the election is just six weeks away, no candidate has emerged as a consensus alternative to Steele and several hopefuls have delayed their timetables as they await an announcement on the chairman's future. If Steele's bows out, it would free up his hardcore backers on the committee to look elsewhere.
In past RNC elections at this time, candidates were openly in campaign mode, traveling the country to line up support ahead of the January election. Not so this year.
"What has changed in this cycle is that Steele has not made a decision one way or the other, so that creates an uncertainty that is throwing the timing off," Anuzis told CNN. "He is really kind of throwing a wrench in the whole process. Everybody is kind of waiting for what the chairman is going to do."