Behind the scenes, the race to become Florida’s next governor is already raging. Congressman Ron DeSantis and Florida House Speaker Richard Corcoran both need to occupy the same ideological real estate if they want to beat Agriculture Commissioner and frontrunner Adam Putnam for the Republican nomination. Even though Jack Latvala‘s rumored entry into the race could complicate things, particulary for Putnam, the electorate may not be big enough for both Corcoran and DeSantis to slug it out with one another and still succeed against Putnam.

All three candidates know that whichever one of them makes the most credible claim to the conservative base has the strongest shot to win the nomination. Both DeSantis and Corcoran, badly trailing Putnam in fundraising, are elbowing each other in an effort to get to Putnam’s ideological right. If either can gain a foothold on that valuable political real estate, they believe they can negate Putnam’s financial advantage. Over the past month, that fight has escalated behind the scenes as they strive to build their respective conservative brands as the alternative to Putnam.

Supporters of both candidates, publicly or privately, are touting support from conservative groups like Americans For Prosperity, or their attendance and participation at Koch-sponsored events. In private, both camps fiercely defend their candidates. The fighting may be for naught: both men are well respected in many of those groups already. The battle between them is more about which one can raise enough money to dissuade the other from continuing the fight.

Case in point: this week’s $2,060,000 fundraising haul ($50k more than originally reported, per sources) announced by Corcoran’s Watchdog PAC. It probably took a few last minute phone calls, but getting that number up and over the $2 million mark is a shrewd shock-and-awe tactic calculated to make conservatives sit up and take notice. It’s just one of the many things Team Corcoran is doing behind the scenes to set their candidate up for success next year.

DeSantis supporters were quick to point out that groups supporting him have about $3 million cash on hand available, and he’s just getting started.

Still, it’s early, and right-leaning activist groups like Americans For Prosperity aren’t about to get caught in the crossfire, no matter how much money either of them has raised. The group is careful not to take sides.

“No matter who is elected, we will advocate for free market policies to move Florida towards being a more free and open society – one that benefits all Floridians,” says Chris Hudson, state director for Americans for Prosperity. “When candidates or elected officials support policies that don’t meet that mark we will hold them accountable.”

PUTNAM ON THE EVE OF BATTLE

While Corcoran and DeSantis jockey for position, Putnam is quietly sharpening his own elbows. He knows exactly what is coming, and the path to victory for DeSantis or Corocran narrows considerably once Putnam starts swinging. He’s not about to let anyone seize the ideological high ground without putting up a spirited fight of his own. In the two months since he publicly declared his candidacy for governor, his campaign and political committee have surpassed the $15 million mark in contributions, and those entities still have a combined $11.65 million cash on hand. Those figures include back-to-back months of raising over two million dollars each. The money will go a long way toward making his own play for conservative voters.

Putnam’s campaign declined to comment for this story. But insiders say that with his campaign team’s shakedown cruise (i.e. bus tour) complete, he is using the summer to improve the inner workings of his team, fine-tune his message, and raise even more money. There’s also another mission, albeit one nobody in his orbit will acknowledge: foreclosing potential fundraising avenues for DeSantis and Corcoran. While he can’t cut them off completely, holding them both below the ten million dollar mark by the end of 2018 will keep him in the driver’s seat and put immense pressure on one or both to consider bowing out.

THE CLOCK IS TICKING

Corcoran’s two million dollars out of the gate, while significant, isn’t unprecedented for the presiding officer of one of Florida’s legislative chambers. By comparison, Senate President Mike Haridopolos posted a $2.6 million haul after the end of the 2011 legislative session. In fairness it’s not an apples-to-apples comparison. Haridopolos was a declared candidate at that point, and it cost him dearly when it came time to bring the session in for a landing. Corcoran didn’t make that mistake, but keeping his powder dry may have impacted his ability to raise even more money.

All that aside, the fundraising clock is ticking faster for Corcoran. To remain competitive, he needs to raise truckloads of money, most of it before January 2018. From January through part of March, he’s forbidden under Florida House rules from fundraising when the legislature is in session. Worse, when session ends, he’s got to hand over the gavel as House Speaker, and along with it, a significant measure of fundraising leverage. For Corocran to remain attractive to donors after that point, he’ll need those fat campaign coffers and a plausible path to the governor’s mansion.

One bright spot for Corcoran as the 2018 legislative session heats up: earned media. He’ll have the bully pulpit as House Speaker, and the Florida capital press will be all to happy to oblige him. So if you thought he made waves during the 2017 session, it’s not difficult to imagine the stunts he might pull this time around. No one should be surprised if he calls for major reductions in, say, spending at the Florida Department of Agriculture, or takes on other sacred Tallahassee cows that will give lobbyists ulcers, but pay huge dividends among rank-and-file Republican voters.

Then there is DeSantis. No slouch when it comes to earned media himself (just check his long history of Fox News and CNN appearances), he can go toe-to-toe with anyone. He’s no stranger to throwing red meat to conservatives. And he’s got the financial resources to compete. With about $3 million in cash on hand available through several supporting groups, rumors are now swirling in Tallahassee that a political committee set up to support his run for governor will soon report a total of $1 million in a little over a month of existence. One half-million dollar contribution was already reported by POLITICO last month, so this new infusion of cash sends a signal that some deep pocketed backers will do whatever it takes to keep him competitive.

“Ron DeSantis has a proven track record of real conservatism and will have no problem getting that message out to Florida voters,” said Brad Herold, a consultant advising DeSantis.

TIMING IS EVERYTHING

A collision between DeSantis and Corcoran is inevitable. The real question is which of them will blink first. And we probably can’t know that answer until sometime after January 10th, 2018, when fundraising reports are due for the 2017 calendar year. While it’ll just be the beginning of the “Richard Corcoran Show” during the 2018 legislative session, if Corcoran is behind by that point, he’ll do everything he can to gain traction in the polls during the session, then make a decision after session ends.

There is a strong case for DeSantis to make his candidacy official sooner rather than later. Getting in now makes him the default alternative to Putnam. He can accelerate his fundraising, start building positive name ID and an effective campaign organization. The downside is that he’ll face pressure to perform almost immediately. He’ll need to start gaining traction in polling, or donors will cool on him. That opens the door for Corcoran, and it strengthens Putnam’s hand.

Should either man fail to gain traction in the gubernatorial race, they both have an enticing alternative: both are lawyers, and could easily pivot down ballot to run for Attorney General. While neither man will admit it at the moment, it’s an appealing, high-profile post that can lead to bigger opportunities down the road. And they won’t have to face a blitz of attack ads from Adam Putnam. But there’s competition in that race, too. Former circuit judge Ashley Moody and state representative Jay Fant, are both seeking the GOP nomination to succeed Pam Bondi.