As finalist states head into the home stretch of competition for coveted Race to the Top funds, who’s running the show could make all the difference, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan said today.

Duncan appeared today at a panel with former Education Secretary Richard Riley at a professional development conference for teachers in Manhattan. Speaking with reporters afterward, Duncan reiterated what he has often said: Race to the Top applications will be judged on “the three C’s,” a state’s “courage, commitment and capacity” to put its plans into action.

When I asked him today how the contest’s reviewers will determine capacity, Duncan said judges’ appraisals of the people behind the plans will be the most important factor — more important, he said, than a state’s policy track record so far.

That stance is likely to comfort New York officials, who have banked in part on the strong reputations of the state education system’s leadership to drive the state’s Race to the Top application, even in the face of perceived setbacks such as the legislature’s failure to lift the statewide cap on charter schools.

State Education Commissioner David Steiner arrived at his job in October bringing with him promises of change in the state education department and a reputation as an innovator in the field of teacher training. And Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch has often emphasized that her reform priorities and those of Steiner — centered around raising academic standards, improving state tests, overhauling the state’s system for tracking student data and making teacher training more practical — align with Obama administration goals.

Each finalist state will send teams of five to Washington, D.C. in two weeks to make their final pitches to the Race to the Top judges. The judges will adjust their scoring of each state’s application in response to their impressions of each team’s presentations.

The point spread among finalists’ applications is so close that states’ performances on these presentations will be the deciding factor, according to EdWeek’s Politics K-12.

The state has not yet determined who exactly will represent New York in their presentation, state education department Tom Dunn told me yesterday. Today Duncan made clear that he wants to meet the captains of each state’s proposals, not outside consultants.

“Bring us the folks who are going to be doing the work,” Duncan said.