June 1, 2023

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, in North Carolina on Thursday for an event promoting the new infrastructure law, had nothing but gushing praise for Vice President Kamala Harris, who in turn lauded the agenda of the man who beat both of them in the 2020 Democratic presidential primary: President Joe Biden.

“At just the right moment, the vice president spoke” to lawmakers in negotiations on the bill at the White House, Buttigieg told the Charlotte crowd, recalling the long road to passing the $1.2 trillion package. Her message, Buttigieg said, was to “think big, not to get lost in the details or politics, but to remember the unique nature of the opportunity in front of us.”
“She was exactly right,” Buttigieg said of his onetime rival. “And it helped shape the conversation.” Harris then took the stage to applaud Biden’s infrastructure bill as well as his “Build Back Better” social spending package now before the Senate.

It’s like the 2020 primary campaign never happened – or that the 2024 primary isn’t looming.
But the next presidential contest is on the horizon, at least for those who need to start thinking about fundraising, staff and strategy. And it leaves both Democratic and Republican hopefuls in an awkward position: How do you explore a run when no one wants to say publicly that the parties’ two standard-bearers – Biden and former President Donald Trump – might not be in the political picture?

Democrats who seem to be testing the waters might appear to be writing off the sitting president – an optic that looks particularly bad if you happen to be serving in his administration and which could make Biden look weak as he seeks to pass an ambitious legislative agenda.

And Republicans have already witnessed the vitriol that Trump has directed at those he perceives to be disloyal. Most recently, Trump issued a statement saying his supporters would not back incumbent GOP Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp, who learned Wednesday that Democrat Stacey Abrams is seeking his job.

“It’s a very weird dynamic I think we have on both sides of the aisle,” says Matthew Bartlett, a veteran of Republican campaigns and New Hampshire politics who is now a principal with Darby Field Advisors. On the Democratic side, “candidates are trying to be smart, trying to do things a candidate would do without being a candidate. On the Republican side, there are people who are eager to challenge a sitting president, but you can’t, because there is something of a sitting nominee” in Trump, says Bartlett, who helped manage Republican Jon Huntsman’s campaign in 2011.
“They’re both nominees until they’re not,” he says of Biden and Trump.

Biden has indicated he will run for re-election, and Trump told Fox News last month he is “certainly thinking about” another run. Both have plenty of time to change their minds, since they have fundraising mechanisms and campaign infrastructure already available.

But given the expense and time it takes to mount a presidential campaign, wannabe 2024 contenders can’t sit around and wait – and they are not.

On the Republican side, former Vice President Mike Pence is headed to New Hampshire, site of the first presidential primary, next week to headline a state Republican Party fundraiser. GOP Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas is scheduled to be in New Hampshire on Friday for a “Christmas with Cotton” Cheshire County GOP fundraiser and a chat with college Republicans at St. Anselm College. Cotton has also visited Iowa, home to the first-in-the-nation caucuses.

Other Iowa visitors include Pence, Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley, former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (who has also visited New Hampshire), Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas and South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem.
On the Democratic side, Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey – another 2020 primary contender – will be the keynote speaker Dec. 11 at a party fundraiser in New Hampshire. Biden himself chose New Hampshire as one of his stops to promote his infrastructure bill recently.

Meanwhile, Buttigieg and Harris are able to meet potentially helpful party members in their work-related travel.

“Just doing their jobs every day is the best thing they can do to put themselves in position, should President Biden decide not to run,” says Mark Mellman, a longtime Democratic consultant. Peddling the infrastructure bill, for example, means Harris and Buttigieg will meet with mayors and local party officials who could be helpful later on, he says.

But still, “it’s a hard and delicate balance,” says Democratic former New Hampshire state legislator Scott Merrick, who was New Hampshire state director for Sen. Amy Klobuchar’s 2020 presidential campaign and a principal at Darby Field Advisors. “How do you simultaneously show there isn’t anything but loyalty to the current president while trying to protect and ensure that you aren’t caught flat-footed and you’ve got a candidate ready to step in and run?”
Buttigieg, asked Thursday about a potential 2024 rivalry with his Air Force Two flight-mate, brushed off any talk of a second presidential run.
“It’s 2021,” Buttigieg told reporters on the flight from Washington to Charlotte. “And the whole point of campaigns and elections is when they go well you get to govern. And we are squarely focused on the job at hand. I am excited to be part of a team led by the president and the vice president, and I think the teamwork that got us to this point is really just beginning.”

The best – and easiest – thing 2024 hopefuls can do is to come to early primary states and campaign for state and local candidates, says University of Iowa political science professor Timothy Hagle.

“That allows those people who maybe are thinking of running for president to get to know the lay of the political land here.” Meeting local party activists and county officials can be very useful – and campaigning for state legislators can earn loyalty points critical in a crowded presidential primary race, he adds.

Republicans, he says, can protect Trump’s potential candidacy (and feelings) by acting as a sort of surrogate for the former president – then be waiting in the wings if Trump bails on a 2024 bid.
Democrats have to be a bit more cautious, avoiding any implication that they expect Biden – who would be 82 at his second inauguration, should he run and win – to step aside. But they, too, can look like good Democratic soldiers by heading to New Hampshire to raise money for the party and campaign for down-ticket candidates, says Andrew Smith, director of the University of New Hampshire Survey Center.

“It’s still early enough that they’re flying under the radar a little bit,” Smith says. “The politicos in New Hampshire understand the game, and they like the game. I don’t think even the hardest core Trumper or hard-core Biden folks would complain if people came up here and were sniffing around.”

With the 2024 primaries more than two years away, the sniffing has already begun.

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