Still thinking about running for president? Time is not on your side.

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With the traditional post-Labor Day start of the presidential campaign season fast approaching, speculation remains rampant that the field of GOP candidates is still not set. Sarah Palin, Chris Christie, John Bolton and Rudy Giuliani are all still potentially weighing a bid for the Republican nomination. But time is not on the side of these possible late entrants.

Much as the general election is a race to collect a majority of electors from the 50 states and the District of Columbia, to win the GOP nomination, a candidate must win a majority of the overall delegates from 56 state and territorial primaries, caucuses or conventions. The first step to winning those delegates is getting on the ballot.

No matter how eloquent a candidate is or how novel their vision, if they are not on the ballot, it is all for naught. Ballot access is tedious, time consuming and one of the least understood aspects of running for the nomination. With 56 separate contests (50 states, the District of Columbia and five territories) come 56 different sets of rules and regulations, set by the state party or the state electoral commission.

State ballot access can be as easy as paying a filing fee or as difficult as gathering thousands of signatures from registered Republican voters in order to qualify. There is no central clearinghouse of information that details all of the different rules; simply understanding the playing field can take weeks of research as filing deadlines quickly approach this fall.

An example — to get on the ballot in Virginia, a campaign must gather 10,000 petition signatures from registered voters, including at least 400 signatures from each of the state’s 11 congressional districts. To withstand challenges and errors and to demonstrate strength, most campaigns seek to collect 15,000 to 20,000 signatures. It is a massive organizational undertaking.

In addition to getting on the ballot, most states require the campaigns to file a list of potential delegates to represent their candidate at the party’s national convention. As with ballot access, there is no standard method as to how someone qualifies to be a delegate; every jurisdiction has its own rules. In some states, delegates must win a succession of elections starting at the precinct level and going all of the way up to the congressional district or state conventions. In others, campaigns must simply put forth the delegate’s name and the winning candidate’s delegates receive the opportunity to attend the national convention.

Candidates who enter the race in September with little to no campaign or volunteer infrastructure face a monumental task of finding potential delegates from nearly every state in the country. Complicating matters further, the campaigns need to figure out the rules for each state or territory and meet deadlines as early as this November — months before the caucuses and primaries actually begin and when the vast majority of voters are not yet paying attention.

Tennessee has some of the most arduous delegate filing rules in the nation. To become a delegate, a person must submit a petition of 100 or more signatures from eligible voters in their congressional district to the secretary of state. The campaign must find at least 27 committed individuals (three delegates from each of the nine congressional districts, plus a still-to-be-determined number of statewide at-large delegates) who are willing to collect well over 100 signatures from registered voters, all before the filing deadline in early December.

The method of getting on the ballot and filing delegate slates is not glamorous; no one has ever made a movie about this process. But in the unlikely yet possible scenario that the nomination fight continues into the 2012 Republican National Convention, no campaign can afford to give up a single potential delegate by failing at the two tasks of ballot access and delegate filings. Time is the one resource in a campaign that is entirely finite. Unless these potential candidates are already at work behind the scenes understanding ballot access and delegate selection procedures in each state, their window of opportunity for winning the nomination is narrowing daily.

Ryan Price was the Director of Ballot Access and Delegate Selection for John McCain in 2008. Christian Ferry served as the Deputy Campaign Manager for McCain. They are principals of the strategic consulting firm The Trailblazer Group in Alexandria, Virginia.