By BRIAN A. HOWEY

NEW YORK – Right now Donald J. Trump is sucking much of the oxygen away from other potential 2024 presidential contenders. But by the time that election cycle hits primetime, there could be two Hoosiers seeking the nation’s highest office.

Mike Pence is already running. He’s maintaining a busy nationwide schedule and that is expected to increase as he stumps for Republican congressional candidates in 2022, collecting an array of potential IOUs.

And U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg has positioned himself in a way that conjures Theodore Roosevelt’s influential stint as assistant secretary to the Navy in the McKinley administration. Secretary Pete will play a crucial role in the Biden administration’s disbursement of an unprecedented $1.2 trillion infrastructure law funds, while Vice President Kamala Harris chafes about her difficult policy portfolio and bad staffing.

Biden is signaling that he will seek reelection at age 82 in 2024. “He is, that’s his intention”, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said earlier this week. But many Democrats aren't convinced, setting off speculation as to who is heir to the Democratic mantle.

Buttigieg said on NBC's Meet The Press that he is a Biden/Harris team player. "She and I are part of a team that is disciplined and doesn't focus on what's obsessing the commentators. We're too busy with a job to do," Buttigieg said, adding that all members of the administration are "laser focused on getting the job done that would be demanding in any administration. There's no room to get caught up in the parlor games, and I'm proud to be part of the Biden-Harris team."

There will be much to sort out when it comes to potential 2024 Pence and Buttigieg presidential runs. The crucial element is the viability of Donald Trump and President Biden. Both men would be the oldest to ever seek the presidency. A Politico/Morning Consult Poll released last week found that only 40% believe Biden “is in good health” while 50% disagreed. A USA/Suffolk Poll found Biden’s approval at an anemic 38% and Harris at 28%. Nearly two-thirds of Americans, 64%, say they don’t want Biden to run for a second term in 2024. That includes 28% of Democrats. Opposition to Trump running for another term in 2024 stands at 58%, including 24% of Republicans.

Biden’s low approval ratings, coming just as he achieved his greatest legislative victory with the $1.2 trillion infrastructure law, are relative. Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels polled in the low 40th percentile in 2006, only to win reelection with 58% of the vote in 2008. President Reagan lost 26 House seats as that Oil Shock recession persisted, only to be followed by the 1984 “Morning in America” election which saw him win reelection with a 49 state landslide.

Trump’s polling is even worse than President Biden. While he is unlikely to officially declare his candidacy prior to the 2022 mid-terms, Trump is setting himself up for an out-sized impact. He is ardently backing candidates in Georgia, Pennsylvania, and other crucial states for the GOP’s Senate retake that have crawled out from the rocks. Herschel Walker in Georgia and Sean Parnell in Pennsylvania have histories of domestic abuse and bizarre behavior. Parnell dropped out of the race this past week. Should Trump’s Senate Class of ‘22 draw comparisons to the Class of 2012 (Richard Mourdock, Todd Akin) and 2010 (Christine “I’m Not a Witch” O’Donnell), he could make history by blowing a second consecutive Senate majority.

Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie taunted Trump last week after he was chided for his 9% approval rating. “When I ran for reelection in 2013, I got 60% of the vote. When he ran for reelection, he lost to Joe Biden,” Christie said. “I’m happy to have that comparison stand up, because that’s the one that really matters.”

In the past week, a number of stories in Politico, CNN and the Washington Post have depicted Vice President Harris as stumbling during her first year in office.

CNN: “Worn out by what they see as entrenched dysfunction and lack of focus, key West Wing aides have largely thrown up their hands at Vice President Kamala Harris and her staff – deciding there simply isn’t time to deal with them right now, especially at a moment when President Joe Biden faces quickly multiplying legislative and political concerns. The exasperation runs both ways. Interviews with nearly three dozen former and current Harris aides, administration officials, Democratic operatives, donors and outside advisers – who spoke extensively to CNN – reveal a complex reality inside the White House. Many in the vice president’s circle fume that she’s not being adequately prepared or positioned, and instead is being sidelined.”

While Harris positioned herself behind President Biden as he signed the infrastructure law on last Monday, Secretary Pete was a few feet away.

The Associated Press offered this analysis: Pete Buttigieg, the transportation secretary who holds the purse strings to much of President Joe Biden’s $1 trillion infrastructure package, was holding forth with reporters on its impact – the promise of more electric cars, intercity train routes, bigger airports – when a pointed question came. How would he go about building racial equity into infrastructure? The 39-year-old former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, and 2020 Democratic presidential candidate laid out his argument that highway design can reflect racism, noting that at least $1 billion in the bill will help reconnect cities and neighborhoods that had been racially segregated or divided by road projects. “I’m still surprised that some people were surprised when I pointed to the fact that if a highway was built for the purpose of dividing a White and a Black neighborhood … that obviously reflects racism,” he said.

And Politico analyzed the growing Harris/Buttigieg rivalry: “President Joe Biden says he intends to run for reelection in 2024. But not all Democrats believe him. Nor are they convinced his No. 2 would be the clear heir if he did choose to opt out. As Vice President Kamala Harris grapples with a portfolio of seemingly intractable issues and responsibilities that have drawn her away from the national spotlight – she Zoomed into the infrastructure Cabinet meeting from Paris on Friday – other Democrats have raised their own national profiles. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg is the point person on implementing much of the popular bipartisan infrastructure deal.”

There will be advantages in being that point person, and pitfalls if the evitable pork in the law dominates future news cycles. As Politico observed: “GOP critics of President Joe Biden’s Build Back Better agenda ... will be watching closely for flaws to highlight to voters. ‘Most Republicans didn’t vote for this bill,’ said Democratic strategist and pollster Mark Mellman. ‘Some of those Republicans are going to be claiming credit anyway. Others will be looking for opportunities to rub somebody’s nose in bad results. Some will be doing both. But a lot of people will be looking for problems with how this money is spent.’

Politico adds, “Even in the best of circumstances, Buttigieg, whose previous political experience was running the city of South Bend, Ind., has his hands full. South Bend’s 2022 budget is $386 million. DOT’s annual budget is around $90 billion – and now that the infrastructure bill has been signed into law, it will swell to about $140 billion. Buttigieg may have one advantage, the generally slow pace of infrastructure projects, especially big ones. Consequential projects are often multiyear affairs, and that could mean that any problems that arise will emerge slowly.”

Buttigieg’s profile towers above just about every other cabinet official. A Morning Consult Poll revealed Buttigieg has the highest approval of any Biden cabinet member at 38% (Treasurer Sec. Janet Yellen is at 33%, Attorney General Merrick Garland at 30% and Sec. of State Antony Blinken is at 29%).

The documentary “Mayor Pete” was released on Amazon Prime last Friday, giving behind-the-scene glimpses of his meteoric 2019/2020 presidential run. It detailed his historic win in the Iowa caucuses, and the quick implosion after Biden won South Carolina and romped on Super Tuesday.

The documentary captures the essence of Buttigieg and his husband, Chasten. The film reveals the sequence where Buttigieg addressed his “coming out” during his 2015 reelection campaign in South Bend, when he was returned to office with 80%. At one point Chasten describes how “nobody” ever came out of the closet when they were growing up and exhorts his mate, “You’re going to tell every single gay kid that it’s going to get better.”

“This is the only chance you’ll ever get to vote for a Maltese-American, left-handed, Episcopalian, gay, war veteran, mayor,” Buttigieg tells a crowd in Iowa. “It’s a leap going from mayor to presidential candidate, but I realize I had something to offer that was just different.”

He later adds, “The challenge is how to master the game without it changing you.”

At one point, Buttigieg is informed that someone was costumed at a rally. “Just to let you know there’s a cow in the audience,” he’s told, to which the mayor responded, “Do we know whose side the cow is on?”

The notion that Pence and Buttigieg could end up seeking the presidency in 2024 finds an uneasy equilibrium between them. When Pence was governor, he called Buttigieg “a friend” as the two collaborated on regional policy initiatives.

The two clashed in 2019 during Buttigieg’s campaign. Buttigieg said he’s “not interested in feuding” with Pence and is just pointing out the vice president’s discriminatory policies against the LGBTQ community. Buttigieg had accused Pence of moral inconsistency by supporting the “porn star presidency” of Trump and said that he wished Pence and others on the religious right understood that their quarrel over his being gay “is with my creator.”

“If he wanted to clear this up, he could come out today and say he’s changed his mind, that it shouldn’t be legal to discriminate against anybody in this country for who they are,” Buttigieg said.

Meanwhile, Pence is trying to steer through the Jan. 6 U.S. Capitol insurrection. Key Pence aides are still upset at how Trump turned his mob against his vice president. Trump defended his treatment of Pence during an interview with ABC’s Jonathan Karl for his book “Betrayal.”

Karl: “Were you worried about him during that siege? Were you worried about his safety?”

Trump: “No, I thought he was well-protected, and I had heard that he was in good shape. No. Because I had heard he was in very good shape.“

Karl: “Because you heard those chants – that was terrible.”

Trump: “He could have – well, the people were very angry.”

Karl: “They were saying ‘hang Mike Pence.’”

Trump: “Because it’s common sense, Jon. It’s common sense that you’re supposed to protect. How can you – if you know a vote is fraudulent, right? – how can you pass on a fraudulent vote to Congress? How can you do that? And I’m telling you: 50/50, it’s right down the middle for the top constitutional scholars when I speak to them. Anybody I spoke to – almost all of them at least pretty much agree, and some very much agree with me – because he’s passing on a vote that he knows is fraudulent.”

Former Pence and Trump aide Alyssa Farah believes that Pence is “uniquely positioned” to run in 2024, saying he can “tout the record” of Trump while avoiding “a lot of the downside.” Farah characterized a potential Trump second term as a “nightmare scenario” with Trump indulging his “autocratic” tendencies.

A lot can happen in the next 18 months, but for the first time since 2011 when Pence and Gov. Mitch Daniels pondered White House campaigns, two Hoosiers could find themselves in the presidential spotlight.