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In Tampa, Republicans speculate on the election - in 2014

Illinois’ delegates to the Republican National Convention in Florida will finally get down to party business Tuesday.

Tropical Storm Isaac prompted the GOP to cancel Monday's planned convention kick off. That left delegates and politicos near Tampa plenty of time for speculation about the election — that is, the election for Illinois governor in 2014.

As Isaac whipped sheets of rain against the Illinois Republicans’ hotel in Clearwater, Fla., many in the delegation hunkered down, trying to figure out what to do with their newfound free time.

Ashvin Lad, from Chicago, munched on bacon in a hotel banquet hall during the daily delegation breakfast.

"If it comes down hard, I’ll probably stay here and play cards," Lad said. 

I soon found out Lad works for Illinois Treasurer Dan Rutherford, a name often mentioned when people speculate who might run against Democratic Governor Pat Quinn in 2014. I asked Lad if he’s hearing the same thing about his boss — or anybody else.

He confirms three names keep coming up:  Treasurer Rutherford, Congressman Schock, from Peoria, and west suburban State Sen. Dillard.

Now, sure, this little political parlor game does help cooped up reporters and delegates pass the time during the storm. But of all the seats up for grabs in two years, Republican leaders here seem most optimistic about their ability to win the governor’s mansion — to take it away from the Democrat they say has failed to fix Illinois’ finances.

The only question is, who’s it gonna be?

"Well, right now there’s probably about 12 of them," joked Judy Diekelman and Bobbi Peterson. They sat in the hotel lobby, as the storm blew outside. Together, they’ve spent more than 50 years in the Illinois GOP, they both hold leadership posts, and they both mention the same three names when I ask about the 2014 gubernatorial race.

"They’re puttin’ their plans together right now," Peterson said. "They’re looking around at party leaders who can help them achieve their goal."

All three lawmakers seem to be taking advantage of their networking opportunities at this year’s convention.

"Hi, how are ya? Hi Don! Good to see you, my friend," said Treasurer Rutherford as he gladhanded with delegates after Monday's breakfast, working the crowd like a ropeline. As the chairman of Mitt Romney’s Illinois campaign, he’s elevated his profile in the state party, and observers say he's using his role as a way to build up his political organization.

Then there’s U.S. Rep. Schock, the young, handsome workout buddy of GOP Vice Presidential candidate Paul Ryan, who’s been making the rounds on cable news shows.

"I’ve got Fox and Friends, CNN, uh, Starting Point and, uh, Morning Joe," Shock said, listing his Tuesday morning schedule.

Meanwhile, State Sen. Dillard — who just barely lost the gubernatorial primary in 2010 — was already telling reporters what he’d do differently in 2014.

"I’ll put whatever I learned, if I decide to run, to work this time that wasn’t in place last time," Dillard said. 

Now, yes, a lot of this is speculation. And, yes, a lot can happen in two years.

But people like Ashvin Lad, the poker-playing delegate from Chicago, say that’s partially what the Republican National Convention is about — letting potential candidates gauge their support among the party faithful.

"The side conversations are gonna happen about Illinois, ‘cause we’re all here, one big happy family. 300 of us in one hotel, in a storm, and uh, you know, inside baseball talk comes up," Lad said.

And when you actually ask Rutherford, Schock, and Dillard point blank to address all the speculation about the 2014 governor’s race, it's as if they’ve all heard this question before.

"Let’s just say my absolute laser beam focus is on Mitt Romney being the president of the United States," Rutherford said.

"Quite frankly, I’m focused on the election in front of us, in 2012," said Schock.

"We gotta get through the presidential election first, before we really laser focus in on the governor," Dillard said.

All those laser beams will likely come into sharper focus Tuesday when the Republican National Convention officially gets underway.

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