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Mike Pence, apart from Donald Trump, finds his old voice again

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KEENE, NH — Mike Pence delivered his old talk-radio tagline as a blessing of sorts at the 2016 Republican National Convention, calling on a wary party to trust his embrace of Donald Trump, the conquering New York billionaire.

“I’m a Christian, a conservative, and a Republican — in that order,” Pence assured the crowd.

But when he used the same line to open his speech to the Cheshire County Republican Committee on Thursday night, he meant more the opposite. The Republican Party, he warned a crowd of hundreds in the first state presidential primary, was being led astray.

“We must resist the politics of personality, the lure of populism unleashed by timeless conservative values,” the former Trump vice president and a likely 2024 presidential candidate said to applause.

He described “some in our party” who don’t want to deal with the coming fiscal catastrophe of entitlements like Social Security and Medicare, a category that includes both Trump and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis (R). He dismissed DeSantis’s recent claim that the war in Ukraine was merely a “territorial dispute” as a failure of US leadership. And he said Republicans should embrace the issue of abortion “now more than ever,” a subtle reference to Trump blaming abortion politics for the Republicans’ disappointing 2022 midterm results.

This was Mike Pence not moored. In early 2016, he had initially endorsed Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), opposing Trump’s rising popularity for an ideological compatriot. He kept the note he wrote to himself that day: “I’m tired of politics, I just want me back.”

This was a second chance to be the man he used to be. Pence bets that by 2024, the Trump disruption he once hailed will be more of an aberration than a transformation.

“I think a different style of leadership is needed now,” Pence had explained hours earlier in Manchester during an interview with The Washington Post. “I think this time also calls for a return to the threshold of politeness that existed not so long ago in American politics on a national level and still defines how most Americans treat each other every day.”

No Republican was more closely associated with the Trump presidency than Pence, who served as his fawning number 2, always trying to be on the president’s side, often taking on the cleaning duties or rounding off the sharp edges. He vouched for Trump despite his objections to his plans to ban Muslims from traveling to the United States, his comments about sexual assault on an “Access Hollywood” tape, and his racist attacks on a federal judge. But the two men eventually broke up over the outcome of the 2020 election, culminating when Trump attacked Pence on Twitter on January 6, 2021, as a violent mob marched toward the U.S. Capitol chanting “Hang Mike Pence!” scanned.

Pence has now returned to nurturing the deep relationships with conservative activists he built while serving in Congress, when he straddled a line of opposition to some of President George W. Bush’s spending priorities as too liberal, yet found a way to advance through the leadership of the House.

Before Trump, Republicans followed a pecking order when it came to picking presidential candidates, entertaining the iconoclasts for a while before sacrificing sizzle for the next in line: Vice President George HW Bush in 1988, Senator Bob Dole (R-Kan. ) in 1996, Texas Governor George W. Bush in 2000, Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.) in 2008, and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney in 2012.

“Pence is in a similar position to Biden in the spring of 2019,” said Tim Phillips, a veteran conservative strategist who previously led Americans for Prosperity. “Biden was not at the top of the polls. He was not at the top of fundraising. However, he was a known entity and he knew exactly who he was. It enabled him to win when the campaign got to him.

However, the 2024 campaign has yet to swing in favor of Pence, who has said he expects to make a decision on whether to run this spring, though his official announcement could come this summer.

Early polls placed him in the mid-single digits with little buzz, despite near-universal name recognition. But with a decision to run for months yet, he sticks to a presidential candidate’s schedule, crisscrosses the early states for private meetings with activists, imposes policy speeches with visits to the old cathedrals of Reagan conservatism – the Goldwater Institute, Bob Jones University, the American Enterprise Institute, the Club for Growth, and Liberty University.

He still maintains that Trump was the only Republican who could have beaten Democrat Hillary Clinton in 2016. He still credits Trump for reviving a “dying political party”. And he still defends some of the Trump pivots away from classic conservatism, including the criminal justice reforms in the First Step Act that reduced some sentencing guidelines.

“I think we have changed the national consensus on China. I think $250 billion in tariffs on China was an idea whose time has come,” he said in the interview.

In an interview Saturday with SiriusXM’s “Breitbart News” show, Pence also said he was “stunned” by the possibility that Trump could be arrested if a Manhattan district attorney successfully secures an indictment on allegations related to hush money paid to a porn star. Stormy Daniels. Trump angrily called for protests on Saturday if such an arrest were made.

“It smacks of the kind of political persecution we endured in the days of the Russian hoax and the whole phone impeachment thing,” Pence said, referring to a special counsel investigation and Trump’s first impeachment.

But in other ways, Pence has broken with Trump and many fellow Republicans, with plans for a major speech on Tuesday outlining his Social Security proposals and changes to Medicare.

“I I know the president has made it clear that he agrees with Joe Biden on Social Security and health care,” Pence said. “Joe Biden’s policy is insolvency.”

Trump’s stance on not making changes to Medicare and Social Security remains unchanged since 2016 and 2020. “My perception was always that there was work in progress,” Pence said. “I was optimistic that we would make it.”

He has written and spoken publicly about Trump’s role in trying to overturn the 2020 election results and in inspiring the rioters who attacked the US Capitol on January 6, 2021, saying that history holds Trump accountable will call. But his lawyers have also objected to Pence testifying before a grand jury investigating Trump’s role, arguing that at least some of what he would be asked could fall under “speech or debate” — clause of the United States Constitution, which protects the legislature. actions from the executive’s investigation.

“I’m limited in what I can say,” Pence said. “But I do believe that the decision to subpoena a former vice president of the United States for actions he took as president of the Senate is unconstitutional.”

When asked in Manchester whether he would still run on the Trump ticket he had the former president took his advice and conceded the 2020 election, Pence stopped walking to his next appointment and thought for a moment.

“What a great hypothesis that was,” he said without answering.

Then he told a story, quoting almost word for word from his recent memoir, about having a private conversation with Trump in the Oval Office while Pence stood by the clock at the bank. His suggestion that Trump “take a bow” and run again in 2024. A moment of silence in the face of the president.

“He just pointed at me and then squinted his eyes and walked into the back room,” Pence said of Trump, who never followed the advice. “And I will always wish he had.”

However, many Republican voters remain skeptical of Pence — with some hard-core Trump loyalists viewing him as a traitor for refusing to overturn the 2020 election and some of those eager to move past the Trump era doubting the man who has already who spent years square. jaws and standing just behind Trump.

On a recent episode of “The Focus Group,” a podcast on the anti-Trump conservative website The Bulwark, Republican strategist Sarah Longwell shared excerpts from a focus group with two-time Trump voters who, like Pence, also identify as evangelical. While the participants were more sympathetic to Pence than some of the non-evangelical groups—which often brutally rejected him—they, too, did not support him as a Republican candidate.

Several said they didn’t really know much about Pence or what he stood for, with one man comparing him to Vice President Harris, President Biden’s much-criticized No. 2. “I almost feel like he’s the Donald Trump equivalent of Kamala Harris, where I can’t name a single thing she’s done,” the man said.

“Everyone said the same thing about Mike Pence: He’d be a great neighbor, but why would anyone vote for him?” Longwell said. “It’s not just that they wouldn’t vote for him, but that no one would vote for him.”

Pence’s advisers say the presidential campaign is just getting underway and there is plenty of time.

“He’s 95 percent name ID, but most people don’t know who he is,” said an adviser to Pence, who asked for anonymity to speak about the campaign strategy. “When they meet this guy, they really like him.”

Pence works voters with a frictionless comfort born of thousands of grip-and-grin in countless rooms with voters and activists. He knows just how to bare his teeth for a friendly half-smile that looks natural in the photo line. He makes eye contact with every constituent he meets, peppers his stupid speech with vernacular, and brags about his three grandchildren who were born in the past two years.

At the bar of the Keene Best Western, 38-year-old Ernest White, an excavator operator with a long beard and an empty glass of beer, said he was willing to choose Pence over Trump after meeting the former vice president personally. meet.

“I just felt good. It felt really good to shake his hand,” White said. “I felt comfortable.”

Parker reported from Washington.

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