TAMPA, FL -- With President Barack Obama carrying Illinois by 25 percentage points in 2008 and with a new poll showing him leading Mitt Romney by about the same margin, one might think there's not much joy among delegates and party leaders gathered here for the Republican National Convention this week.
And while even the reddest of the Republicans acknowledges that GOP presidential candidate Romney has little chance of carrying Illinois, those in Tampa stress that they're focused on building the party for 2014 and beyond.
"The presidential race will be an uphill climb for us," said state party Chairman Pat Brady, adding that Republicans are concentrating their efforts more on congressional and state legislative races this fall.
"In 2014, we’re going to take control of the state, and in 2016, we’re going to be a swing state (in the presidential race)," Brady said. "2012 is an important year, particularly for congressional races, but it’s part of a longer term plan to get more Republicans in office because we need to save our state."
GOP leaders see surge in engagement
Changing Illinois turn from a blue state to a red one — or even a purple one — by the next presidential election will be a challenge in a state where the governor's office and both houses of the General Assembly are controlled by Democrats.
But party leaders say they're seeing more engagement and excitement among Republicans than they have in years — and that should lead to success at the ballot box, they say.
"I’ve been to a number of conventions and I’ve never seen the Republican Party so unified since the Reagan days," said state Sen. Kirk Dillard, who represents DuPage County. "I think the Republican Party’s future in Illinois is bright. For the sake of the citizens of this state, we need a two-party state, with Republicans in control of Springfield, to get our fiscal house in order."
"I think there is a lot of enthusiasm like we haven’t see for a long time," added Karen McConnaughay, chairman of the Kane County Board and state Senate candidate. "You can feel it, you can feel that the momentum is really building."
Pat Rea, a delegate from Tinley Park who has been active in the party for years, said he seeing more and more people wanting to get involved.
"I’ve been the committeeman in Bremen Township since the last presidential election...and I can tell you when I came in, it was difficult finding people who wanted to actively get involved. Now it's difficult to handle all the vounteers," Rea said. "Is this new? It’s new to me."
Adam Robinson, chair of the Chicago Republican Party, said since he was elected to his post in April, more than 800 GOP volunteers have come forward to work on behalf of the party in the city.
"That's new volunteers," he stressed. "Republicans want to get involved and we’re simply giving them a way to get engaged. It’s grassroots…it’s very real support."
Illinois GOP leaders say part of that engagement is a result of unhappiness over the direction of the country since Obama has taken office.
"President Obama is a magnificant speaker and he outlined during the last campaign and since some extraordinary lofty goals and ideals...and none of them have worked," Rea said.
Could Obama really lose in Illinois?
Even though the state's Republicans are focused on building the party for the long term, it doesn't mean they're giving up on this year's presidential election — at least not publicly.
In 2008, Obama took 76 percent of the vote in Cook County, more than triple what GOP challenger John McCain received. But a poll released earlier this month shows Obama leading Romney by just 49 percent to 37 percent.
And Illinios Republicans say there are many who backed Obama in 2008 who will likley be sitting on the sidelines this time around.
"What I see is an incumbent president form our hometown who overpromised and underdelivered for his people in Chicago," Robinson said. "Independent voters and base democrats in Chicago — particularly in the black communitiy — feel this president really oversold them on a bill of goods he has not delivered. Quite frankly, he has not been 'left' enough for these guys, so they just aren’t going to vote for him.
"I’m going to make any claims and say that they’re going to show up for our guy," Robinson added. "But Obama is going to have some turnout issues in the city of Chicago."
"I think a lot of people now have buyer’s remorse," said U.S. Rep. Judy Biggert, whosed 13th District encompasses the southwest suburbs. "There are a lot of people who are really concerned about the slow economic growth and the lack of jobs, and I think people are really worried about where this country is going."
"It isn’t a done deal that the president’s going to win Illinois."