WASHINGTON — They dodge. They hedge. And, yes, they sometimes even fib — or at least flip-flop.
Presidential aspirants dreaming of the White House while running for reelection to congressional or state posts often face an uncomfortable question: Whatever your higher hopes — and the timing they might demand — will you commit to serving out a full term for the folks who vote for you now?
Some, like Florida Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis, evade the question, as he did at a Monday night debate. Rather than answer directly whether he might leave the state, he took a dig at both President Joe Biden and his own Democratic opponent, Rep. Charlie Crist, whom he called “the only worn-out old donkey I’m looking to put out to pasture.”
Others, like South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem, leave wiggle room, saying her “plans” are to serve for four more years.
Not so long ago, there also was Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, who famously pledged, “I will serve out my full six-year term,” only to announce his presidential bid 13 months later. He had just won his seat when he made the vow and wasn't facing imminent reelection.
It's always a high-stakes question, though, and one that often makes for awkward answers — especially when political circumstances are ever-shifting.
“You don’t run for president unless you’ve got completely unabashed ambition. Some people hide it better than others," said Reed Galen, deputy campaign manager for John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign against Obama. He's co-founder of The Lincoln Project, a GOP group opposing former President Donald Trump, who himself is poised to seek the presidency again in 2024.
DeSantis' carefully crafted dodge at Monday's debate both sidestepped the question and offered a chance to swipe at Biden, the oldest president in history. DeSantis is favored for reelection and may mount a 2024 presidential run as a GOP primary alternative to Trump.
Amid speculation that she could mount her own White House bid, Noem recently told The Associated Press, “I am running to be reelected as governor. My plans are to stay here for four years. Absolutely. That’s what I want to do.”
Still another future possible presidential contender, former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, spent Tuesday in Iowa — which will kick off the 2024 GOP primary. Haley campaigned with Gov. Kim Reynolds, who is heavily favored to win reelection, but noted only that she expects to decide whether or not to run by January.
“If it looks like there’s a place for me, I’ve never lost a race," said Haley, who was also U.S. ambassador to the United Nations during the Trump administration. “I’m not going to start now.”
Others have taken a different tack. California Gov. Gavin Newsom declared last weekend that he would serve his full four-year term should he win reelection, as expected. That’s despite Newsom sparking speculation about a 2024 presidential run should Biden not seek reelection, running ads slamming Republican leadership in Florida and Texas.
Arizona Republican governor candidate Kari Lake has vowed to serve “eight years" as governor amid chatter she could be a vice presidential candidate for Trump.
But even seemingly ironclad responses don't always hold up.
Obama was elected to the Senate in 2005 and told NBC in January 2006 that he'd serve his full term, adding “I will not” run for president in 2008. He kicked off his presidential bid in February 2007 and eventually bested onetime Democratic primary favorite Hillary Clinton — who herself had forgone a possible presidential run four years earlier, saying she would serve her full term as New York senator.
Democrat Martin O'Malley was Maryland's governor for eight years until 2015, then ran unsuccessfully for president. He suggested governors going back to Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton saw their presidential aspirations hurt their popularity back home, where voters “can be resentful and twice as hard on a candidate that they’ve grown up with and that they’ve seen.”
“What we call it here in Maryland is the crab pot effect," O'Malley said. "When one crab’s trying to escape out of the pot, the other ones will pull him back in.”
While running for Senate in Texas in 2018, Democrat Beto O'Rourke slammed incumbent Republican Ted Cruz for having spent so much time traveling outside the state running for president in 2016. O'Rourke also committed then to serving a full term if he won, even as Cruz didn't hide his post-Trump administration White House aspirations.
Cruz was reelected — and then O'Rourke mounted a brief 2020 presidential bid.
Cruz may again seek the White House in 2024. O'Rourke, meanwhile, is now running for Texas governor against Republican incumbent Greg Abbott, who himself could run for president in two years.
Potential presidential campaign can scramble home-state politics even before they get off the ground.
In 1998, George W. Bush was cruising to reelection as Texas governor and hadn't formally announced a widely anticipated 2000 presidential run. But his family campaigned hard for Republican Rick Perry — then seeking the lieutenant governorship in a tight race — so that the governorship would remain in GOP hands if Bush eventually left for the White House.
Bush later did just that and Perry succeeded him and served as governor for 14-plus years, eventually mounting two unsuccessful White House bids of his own in 2012 and 2016.
Ray Sullivan, who worked on both Bush's and Perry's campaigns, said Perry was a “hard, definitive no” on running for president until late summer 2011. But then he began to see support building and had close friends and relatives urging him to jump into the White House race.
Perry announced that August but dropped out by January, reflecting how little groundwork his team had been able to do because of the condensed decision-making process, Sullivan said.
“We did not give ourselves enough time to fully prepare for the rigors of a presidential campaign,” he said. “And running for president is, physically, emotionally, mentally, the most taxing thing that a human being can do.”
Associated Press writers Thomas Beaumont in Hiawatha, Iowa, and Steven Groves in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, contributed to this report.