INDIANAPOLIS — In the 2016 political landscape, a pair of the state's political big dogs — Republican Gov. Mike Pence and former Democratic U.S. Sen. Evan Bayh — has potential candidates holding their breath and waiting on them.
Until Pence says otherwise, he's the clear pick for his party for the governor's office. But he's been hinting otherwise, and extensively, in the past few months, with moves that have Washington pundits talking up a possible White House run.
And Bayh, who led the party through its halcyon days in Indiana as a two-term governor and two-term U.S. senator, could possibly win back the governor's office or one of the state's two U.S. Senate seats — both of which are on the ballot in 2016 — should he decide to return to Indiana politics.
The two have left other ambitious politicians in limbo as they try to determine what their next move should be.
"Everybody likes to keep their options open. Some people just have more options than others," said Andrew Downs, director of the Mike Downs Center for Indiana Politics at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne.
Hammond Mayor Tom McDermott has said he is looking at seeking the Democrats' nod for governor. The party's 2012 nominee, former House Speaker John Gregg, has been campaigning informally but is waiting to make any official declaration of candidacy. On the Republican side, nobody has openly mentioned a run in 2016 out of deference to Pence, but party operatives often talk about House Speaker Brian Bosma and Lt. Gov. Sue Ellspermann as possible candidates.
Big names like Pence and Bayh can generate excitement among each party's base, Downs said, but they also can keep the parties from developing talent further down in the ranks and leave would-be governors and U.S. senators feeling stifled.
Bayh resurrected questions about his ambitions earlier this month when U.S. Attorney Joe Hogsett announced he was stepping down. The move immediately sparked speculation that Hogsett, spurred in large part by Bayh, would run for mayor of Indianapolis. Bayh fueled speculation about his own plans during a rare public appearance in Indianapolis at which he praised Hogsett and fielded questions about his own plans.
The clear prize at stake is the governor's office, but the top of the ticket often ripples through to other offices down-ballot. Downs pointed out that rising stars eyeing the governor's office might look at the U.S. Senate seat, Congress or any series of state offices, depending how the chips fall.
The guessing game has provided plenty of ammunition for both parties. The Indiana Republican Party had an intern do man-on-the street interviews on Indianapolis' Monument Circle last week, carrying photos of Hogsett and Bayh and asking the question: "Do you know this guy?"
The rhetorical point — that voters don't know Hogsett or Bayh — got across easily. But one respondent confused Hogsett with Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard, the Republicans' likely pick and potential Hogsett opponent.
The strategy mirrored a website started by the Indiana Democratic Party tracking Pence's travels around the country — and arguing that the governor is more interested in the White House than the Statehouse.
Don't count on any clear answers soon.
Pence, Downs said, could effectively wait to announce a re-election bid until 2016 and be OK but would face pressure from his party to announce his plans earlier than that. Bayh may have to make a decision sooner that, he said, but not by much.