Rep. Marlin A. Stutzman (R-Ind.) had a poker face Wednesday afternoon when, surrounded by reporters at the Capitol, he said he was unsure whom he would support for majority whip if his long-shot bid for the position falls short Thursday in the first round of balloting.
When pressed to reveal whom he is advising his supporters to back in such a scenario, Stutzman shrugged.
"I don't have an answer yet," he said, chuckling at the speculation about his leanings.
Stutzman’s response gives him increased leverage heading into the vote, with the two leading contenders, Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.) and Rep. Peter Roskam (R-Ill.), both short of the support to win an outright majority of House Republicans and clamoring to court him.
All of the jockeying surrounding the 37-year-old lawmaker also raises the question: What does Stutzman want?
With about 50 votes on his side, per his count, Stutzman is suddenly the key variable in Capitol Hill's most intense power struggle this year and could reap a reward even if he loses the race.
Some Scalise and Roskam advisers have said that if the contest is close, Stutzman could be offered the position of chief deputy whip in an effort to get him and his team on board ahead of the second vote.
Stutzman cracked a slight smile at the possibility but was vague on whether he was interested in the job. “I’ll think about it at that time,” he said.
Another idea that has been floated by Scalise's deputies: Scalise, currently chairman of the Republican Study Committee, giving him the nod replace him at the RSC.
"I love the RSC," Stutzman said, when asked about whether he was mulling a run to lead the right-wing caucus. "It just hasn't been settled in my gut."
More likely, however, is that Stutzman would use his higher profile for a later leadership run, perhaps for majority whip or conference chairman when another opening emerges.
"I wouldn't rule it out, maybe not next time, but down the road again," Stutzman said.
Stutzman’s aides, who requested anonymity to discuss private deliberations, added that he has not yet been contacted by Scalise or Roskam about sitting down to talk about a deal, and emphasized that he still believes he can win race.
As he worked the House floor Wednesday afternoon, sitting down in the back rows with Rep. Sam Johnson (R-Texas) and others, Stutzman seemed at least poised to become one of the more prominent members of the sophomore class, which was the core of the tea party wave in 2010. He is already close to conservative leaders at influential outside groups such as the Heritage Foundation and the Club for Growth.
He spent Tuesday night huddling with dozens of House classmates in the Longworth Building, telling them that he could be their champion -- and that if they were pledged, they should consider flipping.
Stutzman’s coalition in the whip race, although smaller than his competitors, features a diverse array of GOP voices, from more centrist Rep. Sean Duffy (R-Wis.) to Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), a favorite of the party's hardliners. Entering the cloakroom, Jordan flashed a thumbs up when asked about Stutzman's chances.
Earlier Wednesday, Stutzman spoke at a candidate forum, using baseball as a framework to talk about the need for teamwork and speaking about the lessons he learned from his father and grandfather. A former state legislator, he also talked about his political ties to former Indiana governor Mitch Daniels, a popular conservative figure.
Those stories and his still-unclear ambitions signal that he is in play, both for the second ballot and for a future in the House's leadership ranks.