RALEIGH, North Carolina — This year's General Assembly session has coincided with the ramped-up U.S. Senate campaign of House Speaker Thom Tillis.
His bid for federal office also means fellow Republicans are thinking more about whether they'll succeed Tillis as speaker in 2015.
The half-dozen or so GOP lawmakers most discussed for the job have key leadership positions, giving them the opportunity to make an impression by passing legislation or building coalitions before the session soon ends. Others are helping raise funds for GOP candidates, with the hope they'll be remembered as a team player when incoming House Republicans gather after the November legislative elections to nominate a chamber leader.
Several also have filled in for Tillis by presiding over floor debate, potentially helping rank-and-file Republicans envision whether someone can manage the daily legislative work for the next two years.
"The question is so how do you handle the leadership responsibilities and how do you handle the gavel when you're overseeing a 120-member body?" asked Harold Brubaker, the Republican House speaker from 1995 through 1998, now a legislative lobbyist. "I think that's an important point that members say, 'Yes, I think this person is qualified to lead.'"
Potential candidates are careful in framing their desire for the post while Tillis is still on the job and General Assembly elections are four months away.
"Under the right set of circumstances, I could be a good speaker for the House, but I also understand that there are others qualified to do that as well," said Rep. David Lewis, R-Harnett, co-chairman of the House Finance Committee and a Republican National Committee member.
"Once we get past the general elections or so, I think the conversations about speaker are more relevant," added House Rules Chairman Tim Moore, R-Cleveland.
Talk about a successor came earlier than usual. That's because Tillis, who was elected speaker in 2011, made clear long ago the 2013-14 session would be his last in the House. Tillis announced his candidacy for Senate in May 2013.
With Republicans holding a 77-43 seat advantage in a chamber with legislative boundaries they drew, it's not a stretch to think the GOP will remain the majority party in 2015. The full legislature votes for the speaker in January.
Tillis has been much more willing to relinquish the gavel to fellow Republicans to preside during debate compared to his recent predecessors. Fourteen other House members presided over the chamber when votes were cast in 2013, while six have substituted for Tillis so far during this year's two-month session, according to a review of roll-call records by The Associated Press.
"You've got some that clearly are thinking about running for speaker," Tillis said in an interview.
Carrying much of the load when Tillis is absent or meeting with members have been Moore and Rep. Justin Burr, R-Stanly, co-chairman of the House Appropriations Committee. Burr said Friday he wouldn't rule out a run for speaker.
Other lawmakers publicly expressing interest in the speakership are Reps. Tim Moffitt, R-Buncombe; Nelson Dollar, R-Wake; and Leo Daughtry, R-Johnston. All three have presided since 2013.
Moffitt has been a chamber leader on regulatory reform issues. Dollar is the senior chairman of the House Appropriations Committee. Daughtry is the judiciary committee chairman, the former majority and minority leader and a speaker's candidate a decade ago.
Majority Whip Rep. Mike Hager, R-Rutherford, said standing on the speaker's dais is kind of an audition.
House members "just want to know that you're comfortable up there, that you can do a good job," said Hager. He also said he's been traveling up to 1,000 miles a week to attend candidate fundraising events. Tillis had a similar role as the minority whip in the year Republicans won the House majority in 2010.
Potential speakers interviewed all said being speaker is also about keeping caucus members unified and having good relationships with members.
Added Tillis: "The style of presiding is, I think, a minor consideration."