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California Gov. Gavin Newsom, Rep. Ro Khanna, Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro, Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, Arizona Sen. Mark Kelly, and Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg.
CNN  — 

Top Democrats were watching closely as California Gov. Gavin Newsom sparred with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis in last week’s unusual Fox News undercard debate, doing his best to appear a loyal soldier for President Joe Biden – and that this event was not just his latest way of running himself, or setting himself up to be turned to for the latest conspiracy scenario of the president dropping out ahead of next year’s convention.

“Thank you for noticing that,” Newsom told a reporter after the debate who mentioned he had spent part of the night defending Biden’s record.

“No,” he told another who asked if the event had been about laying the groundwork for 2028. “I was trying to make the case for Joe Biden.”

This is the delicate and sometimes uncomfortable dance the next generation of national Democratic leaders like Newsom find themselves doing in 2024. For the next 11 months, they are stuck being intriguing but not enticing, stoking flames but not fanning them. That task has been made more fraught when their very existence reminds voters – who have made consistently clear that they want another alternative to an 81-year-old president – about what could have been.

CNN’s conversations with two dozen people close to the speculated candidates and many of the Democrats themselves detailed what many of them say is the core struggle, in the words of an adviser to one of the people whose name often gets mentioned as presidential material, “how to sell Joe Biden better than Joe Biden is selling himself,” while also not selling themselves too hard – as several of Newsom’s potential future primary opponents privately gripe he is doing.

Biden aides are also keeping tabs and keeping score – with megadonor and Biden campaign co-chair Jeffrey Katzenberg chiding a number of the Democrats directly that the best way to get powerful fundraisers and other top leaders in their corner for 2028 is to be what he calls the “MVP” of getting the president re-elected in 2024, according to people who have heard him.

Biden aides are reinforcing this point. Aides tell some of the Democrats to take note of how much money Newsom has raised for Biden’s reelection campaign already. Or they nudge some of those who have been less active to do more cheerleading for Biden on cable news.

“You want to lead the Democratic Party, you better pay your dues in helping the Democratic Party – especially at a time like this that is so existential,” said Rep. Ro Khanna, who is open about eyeing his own run for 2028.

He has already had conversations with top Biden adviser Anita Dunn and aides in Wilmington about where he will deployed, beyond his own debate with Republican presidential contender Vivek Ramaswamy last month.

In private, they’re already starting to keep tabs, whether it’s the TV being on at the vice president’s residence in the Naval Observatory to watch Newsom’s spinning after the second Republican debate in September, according to a person told about it, or aides to other prospective candidates chattering about how the various options are registering in the few totally speculative polls that have been done this early.

Aides and sometimes the Democrats themselves snipe and mock each other. Most laugh both at Minnesota Rep. Dean Phillips’ primary challenge to Biden this cycle and any suggestion that Vice President Kamala Harris would have a clear field for a post-Biden nomination.

Occasionally, that spills out in public.

Pennsylvania Sen. John Fetterman, who says he is not running, spent the last weekend of October in Iowa, making his own speech to the state Democratic Party’s dinner there – and took a jab at Newsom whom he said was running for president without announcing it.

“It becomes impossible to ignore something that really creates the wrong kind of impression,” Fetterman told CNN afterwards.

Top surrogates

Biden campaign officials have begun planning extensive travel assignments for everyone on the 2028 list and beyond, both to more formally co-opt their ambitions and to help build out a less intensive schedule for the president .

Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro, Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and Arizona Sen. Mark Kelly have the clearest path to help Biden while also maybe helping themselves — each is the most popular politician in their respective battleground states, consistently outpolling Biden. They know making their case for a future nomination will be much harder if they are not able to deliver their respective states for Biden.

Nationally, Vice President Kamala Harris is expected to be a huge part of the re-election campaign, and the very groups that she will be most tasked with trying to bring in for Biden – young people, women and Black voters – are the groups that tend to be key blocs in Democratic primary electorates.

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, the only former 2020 candidate other than Harris to make it into Biden’s Cabinet, has been the highest profile Biden official presence on cable TV and on the road, despite having a job that was often overlooked in previous administrations.

Buttigieg himself was the only member of the Cabinet besides the vice president asked to speak at the Biden campaign’s big donor retreat in Chicago in September, where he and Harris both got warm receptions. He has also kept up a regular weekly schedule of travel to promote popular infrastructure projects now underway all around the country. And he’s peppered that with some quiet political stops of his own, like appearing at an October conference organized by Gov. Roy Cooper for North Carolina Democrats plotting the future in the battleground state.

Mitch Landrieu, the soon-to-depart infrastructure coordinator whose name sometimes gets mentioned as a presidential contender, has also been lapping the country in stops, as has Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo, who has also been building up an international profile particularly around her dealings with China. Political leaders in multiple battleground states say they would rather have any of those Cabinet officials on the ground than Biden or Harris, providing openings for all three possible 2028 candidates.

Others have been popping up already on their own, or for the campaign. In the space of a few weeks in October, Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker headlined the Wisconsin Democratic Party’s big dinner and showed up in Miami as part of the Biden campaign’s press conference pre-butting the third Republican primary debate.

Tracking and jockeying already underway

One way to see how the race-without-a-race is already underway is to observe how these Democrats are already jousting in quiet conversations about who came up first with talking about “freedom” on the campaign trail.

Sitting in New Hampshire at the end of September, joined by his wife in a mirrored dressing room backstage from a high school auditorium and brushing off the idea of future motives for why he was there, Shapiro explained why he had done a version of his 2022 campaign riff about “real freedom” to the audience full of potential future house party hosts and endorsers (plus a few aides to competitors watching on the livestream).

Standing on stage, he had acted out a line he likes—“they love to cloak themselves in the blanket of freedom”— going in a hunch with his arms pulling cover around him, and in an interview, dug in more.

“What they’re selling isn’t freedom at all,” he said. “On their watch, they have taken away a woman’s right to choose. On their watch, they’re restricting kids’ access to books. On their watch, they’re trying to make it harder for gay people in this country. On their watch, they’re making it harder for corporations to do business in this nation if they don’t follow their dangerous social preferences.”

Maryland Gov. Wes Moore, as people close to him will point out, made freedom a theme of his own campaign last year. Newsom, too, built his second inaugural address around the idea, and he came back to it several times on the debate stage with DeSantis.

They are not the only ones.

“Those of you who know me well know how excited I was when the president chose to launch his re-election around the theme of ‘freedom’ and making sure that we cede no ground to the other side – on the contrary, to own that theme of freedom and liberty and what’s at stake,” Buttigieg said, introducing Biden at a fundraiser in May, according to a recording obtained by CNN, and recalling the speeches on freedom he gave in his 2020 campaign.

‘It’s exhausting’

Several of the potential 2028 Democrats told CNN privately that living in the limbo between “unless” and “until” makes it so that they never have trouble getting press attention or invitations to fancy dinners with powerful people looking to make nice early. But even that wears thin after years of people telling them they should run for president – and not being able to do anything about it.

“It’s exhausting,” said a close adviser to one of the people talked about as a prospective candidate.

“I just dismiss it,” said Whitmer.

People who have seen Kelly say he tries to quickly end the conversation – whether it comes up at the Wisconsin state fair cattle show he attended over the summer to help support his colleague Sen. Tammy Baldwin’s re-election or the retreat he had with his leadership PAC in November with special guest Bill Clinton – with a “thank you,” and redirect the conversation to backing Biden.

Even Pritzker – who started his answer  about presidential talk with the caveat, “it’s flattering, let’s be honest, to even be thought of in that way” – said that only goes so far.

Almost every time he talks to a national reporter or goes on a national TV show, Pritzker said he feels some of the reaction is, “‘There he goes, he’s running for president’ — and I don’t know what to say. What about promoting my state? What about standing as a beacon for people about what we stand for in the Midwest and in Illinois? It promotes Joe Biden, the president that I believe in and want to help get reelected, when I’m publicly asked questions and I talk about Joe Biden and what he’s gotten done for people.”