WASHINGTON — When former President Donald Trump was asked to list those he considers the future leaders of the Republican Party, he quickly rattled off names including Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and Sens. Josh Hawley and Ted Cruz. Conspicuously absent from the list: Mike Pence.

The former vice president is steadily reentering public life as he eyes a potential run for the White House in 2024. He’s joining conservative organizations, writing op-eds, delivering speeches and launching an advocacy group that will focus on promoting the Trump administration’s accomplishments.

But Trump’s neglect in mentioning Pence during a podcast interview earlier this month signals the former vice president’s unique challenge. For someone who built a reputation as one of Trump’s most steadfast supporters, Pence is now viewed with suspicion among many Republicans for observing his constitutional duty in January to facilitate a peaceful transfer of power to the Biden administration, a decision that still has Trump fuming.

To prevail in a Republican presidential primary, Pence may have to reinforce his loyalty to Trump while defending his decisions during the final days of the administration when the president falsely alleged widespread voter fraud, contributing to a deadly riot at the U.S. Capitol. If anyone can achieve this awkward balance, some Republicans say, it’s Pence.

“Anybody who can pull off an endorsement of Ted Cruz and become Donald Trump’s vice presidential nominee should not be counted out,” said Republican strategist Alice Stewart, who worked for Cruz’s 2016 presidential campaign when Pence endorsed him. “He has a way of splitting hairs and threading the needle that has paid off in the past.”

Pence aides generally brush off talk of the next presidential election. They insist he is focused on his family and next year’s midterm elections, when Republicans are well positioned to regain at least one chamber of Congress. Allies argue that, over time, the anger will subside.

“I think 2024’s a long time away and if Mike Pence runs for president he will appeal to the Republican base in a way that will make him a strong contender,” said Republican Rep. Jim Banks of Indiana, who chairs the conservative Republican Study Committee and has already endorsed a Pence 2024 run. “If and when Mike Pence steps back up to the plate, I think he will have strong appeal among Republicans nationwide.”

Pence declined to comment for this story. For their part, Trump aides warn against reading too much into the omission during the podcast interview.

“That was not an exclusive list,” said Trump adviser Jason Miller. Still, Trump continued to deride Pence in the interview, falsely claiming Pence had the authority to unilaterally overturn the results of the election, even though he did not.

Trump has not said whether he will seek the White House again in 2024. If he doesn’t, other Republicans are making clear they won’t cede the race to Pence. Former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, for instance, is already visiting the critical primary states of Iowa and New Hampshire.