OXON HILL, Md. (AP) -- Trips to Mar-a-Lago. Glowing speeches. Front-row seats at major events.
The first Republican presidential primaries are nearly a year away and the candidate field is unsettled. But already, a shadow contest of another sort is underway with several Republicans openly jockeying to position themselves as potential running mates to Donald Trump, the early front-runner for the nomination.
"A lot of people are right now auditioning," Trump boasted to supporters in Florida last month.
The mere mention of a running mate this early in the process is a departure from the traditional timeline of presidential primaries, where candidates typically spend the opening months of a campaign introducing themselves to voters and sharing their visions for the country. But as a former president, Trump needs no introduction and is eager to project an air of inevitability around his campaign, particularly as attention builds around Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who is widely seen as his toughest potential GOP rival.
Trump campaign officials insist that the vice presidential search is not something they have been actively discussing.
"We appreciate all support for President Trump, but the clear focus is on making sure that he wins the Republican nomination and is well-positioned to win the general election in 2024," said Jason Miller, a longtime Trump adviser.
That, however, hasn't stopped some could-be candidates from taking full advantage of opportunities to be in close proximity to Trump, at his club and at events. The dynamic was on full display earlier this month at the Conservative Political Action Conference, where a trio of women who have been mentioned as possible contenders sat in the audience to cheer Trump's headline speech.
They were Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia, Elise Stefanik of New York and Kari Lake, the news anchor-turned-failed-Arizona gubernatorial candidate who ended her remarks at a keynote event dinner by kissing a portrait of Trump that was placed on stage.
While Trump, according to people who have spoken to him, is in no rush to make a decision and understands that he has to let the nomination process play out, he has nonetheless talked through possible choices since well before he formally announced his candidacy last fall. In those conversations, he has indicated his interest in selecting a woman this time around.
But allies say Trump is looking, first and foremost, for someone who will be unabashedly loyal after feeling burned by former Vice President Mike Pence for refusing to overturn the results of the 2020 election.
In 2016, running as a celebrity businessman with no experience in politics, Trump chose a person who was, in many ways, his total opposite, picking the Indiana governor and former congressman who could bolster his standing with conservatives and the religious right.
Trump, this time, is looking for someone more like himself, said Michael Caputo, a longtime friend and adviser who believes Stefanik would be Trump's best choice.
"I think the president learned a lot from his experience with Pence," he said. "I think this time Trump's going to be looking for someone cut from the same cloth he is, not from a different, complementary cloth."
While Trump is looking for someone with star power, he has also signaled that he is reluctant to choose someone who might overshadow him in the race.
Among those who are seen as most eager for the job is Lake, who is popular with Trump's MAGA base and won -- and then promoted -- a CPAC straw poll that asked audience members whom they would like to see as the Republican vice presidential nominee. She is seen as unequivocally loyal to the former president, but detractors note she lost her only race and continues to dispute the results, which would draw attention to Trump's own election failures and intensify criticism that he is too focused on the past.
She said in a statement that she is "100% dedicated to serving as Arizona Governor" -- even though Democrat Katie Hobbs, who defeated Lake, now holds the job -- and "will also work to make sure President Trump gets back in the White House ASAP. Anything outside of those two goals is nothing but a distraction."
A person close to Lake said that she has had no formal discussions about the role is currently gearing up for a potential run for the Senate. But the person, who, like others, insisted on anonymity to discuss private conversations, also said Lake is unapologetically pro-Trump and would likely do anything he asked.
Greene, the flame-throwing congresswoman who recently proposed a "national divorce" between red and blue states, is also seen as eager for the role. She was a constant presence at Trump's midterm rallies, often speaking during the pre-show program, and has been a frequent visitor to Florida, including sharing dinner with Lake at a local restaurant, Rocco's Tacos, on Valentine's Day.
"She sees herself on the short list for Trump's VP. Paraphrasing Cokie Roberts, when MTG looks in the mirror she sees a potential president smiling back," Steve Bannon, Trump's former chief strategist who frequently hosts Greene on his podcast, told NBC, referring to the late political reporter.
When asked about her vice presidential ambitions recently, Greene told reporters, "That's up to President Trump who he chooses."
Stefanik is also frequently mentioned as a likely contender, but has taken what allies describe as a more subtle approach. She endorsed Trump before he even announced he was running, and has become one of his chief defenders on the Hill. During CPAC, Stefanik used her speech to call for Trump's reelection and introduced him at a private event organized by his super PAC. Trump, in turn, praised her as a "rocket ship."
People close to Stefanik say that, instead of overtly angling for the position, she is focused on doing her job as GOP conference chair and a member of the House Intelligence Committee, believing that if she does it well, good things will follow. But she nonetheless has the support of several Trump allies, who see her as disciplined and less risky than other potential options, and also point to her record for winning swing, suburban districts.
Stefanik, in an interview, said she had not discussed the position with Trump, though she has previously said she would be honored to serve in his administration.
"We have a lot of work to do over the next two years and I am gonna work no matter what to make sure that we have a Republican president, House and Senate in 2024," she said. "So that's what I focused on, and it's a big job."
Trump has also discussed other potential running mates, including his former ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, who has been reluctant to criticize the former president since launching her bid. South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott, who would be the first Black man on a Republican presidential ticket, is seen as another potential option.
Allies say both are serious about running for president in their own right, not in hopes of angling to serve as vice president or in another Cabinet post, though many believe Haley, in particular, would be open to an offer.
Also mentioned as possible contenders: South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem, who is considering her own presidential run; Tennessee Sen. Marsha Blackburn, a supporter of the former president in 2016 and 2020; and Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds, who appeared alongside the former president as he visited the state Monday.
"We're going to have a lot of great choices for vice president. We're gonna pick a great one," Trump said during his swing through Iowa.