ROCHESTER -- With the Republican nomination locked up for Minnesota's biggest political prize in 2000, this year's state party convention doubles as an audition for people considering bids for governor and U.S. Senate in 2002.
Several potential candidates made the rounds Friday at the Mayo Civic Center, greeting old friends and working to make new ones.
''There's people out here taking the temperature,'' said state GOP Chairman Ron Eibensteiner.
He is being careful not to look past November 2000, when voters will decide whether to re-elect Sen. Rod Grams for a second term. But he said it is healthy for 2002 candidates to get going.
No one was quite as direct as Dan Williams, a former campaign staffer for U.S. Sen. Rudy Boschwitz and running mate to Allen Quist in his failed bid to regain the governorship in 1998.
''I started looking at U.S. Senate 2002 in September 1996,'' said Williams, an information technology consultant.
Republicans frequently mentioned for governor are Secretary of State Mary Kiffmeyer, House Majority Leader Tim Pawlenty, U.S. Rep Gil Gutknecht and St. Paul Mayor Norm Coleman. Pawlenty, Gutknecht and Coleman also are included on the early list of Senate candidates with conservative Twin Cities talk-show host Jason Lewis.
A few delegates wore stickers that said ''Draft Krinkie for governor in '02,'' referring to state Rep. Phil Krinkie of Shoreview. Krinkie has been an aggressive budget hawk.
Delegates greeted Kiffmeyer with hearty applause. But she said is keeping her focus on her current job.
''2002 is a ways away,'' she said.
Coleman, the GOP nominee for governor in 1998, was visible but said he was not actively campaigning.
''I'm not going to worry about testing any waters. It's much too early,'' he said.
Pawlenty, R-Eagan, acknowledged his interest in running for Senate or governor. Still, he said re-electing a Republican majority to the Minnesota House was a more pressing concern.
''I can't do my job effectively as majority leader and run for higher office at the same time,'' he said.
Prior to the convention, Lewis sent a letter to all 2013 delegates and alternates. He doesn't explicitly mention an interest in seeking office, but that's how some delegates are taking it. Lewis has used his radio show to promote his fiscally conservative views
But some questioned his chances, including state Rep. Ken Wolf, R-Burnsville.
''Jason has his place but I don't see him as being electable,'' Wolf said. ''People on the far right or the far left usually don't get noticed.''
Supporters of Gutknecht passed out vaguely worded buttons. The ''Minnesotans for Gutknecht in 2002'' buttons only fueled speculation.
Renee Thiele, of Owatonna, was among those wearing the button. She said the focus should be on 2000 races, but said it's never too early to look ahead.
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