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Mike Pence, unmoored from Donald Trump, finds his old voice

The former vice president is banking on Republicans returning to more traditional conservatism after the turbulent Trump era

Former vice president Mike Pence addresses an audience during a GOP fundraising dinner on Thursday in Keene, N.H. (Steven Senne/AP)
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KEENE, N.H. — Mike Pence delivered his old talk radio tag line as a kind of benediction 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 Thursday evening to open his speech to the Cheshire County Republican Committee, he meant something closer to the opposite. The Republican Party, he warned a crowd of hundreds in the first presidential primary state, was being led astray.

On March 19, former vice president Mike Pence and lawmakers reacted to former president Donald Trump’s call to rally supporters over his possible indictment. (Video: The Washington Post)

“We have to resist the politics of personality, the lure of populism unmoored by timeless conservative values,” Trump’s former 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 catastrophes of entitlements like Social Security and Medicare, a category that includes both Trump and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R). He dismissed as a failure of American leadership DeSantis’s recent claim that the Ukraine war was merely a “territorial dispute.” And he said Republicans need to 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 unmoored. Back in early 2016, he had initially endorsed Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), resisting 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.”

Now was a second chance to be the man he was known to be before. Pence is betting that in 2024, the Trump disruption he once cheered will prove to have been more of an aberration than a transformation.

“I think now calls for a different style of leadership,” 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 civility that existed not so long ago in American politics at the national level and still defines the way most Americans treat each other every day.”

No Republican was more closely associated with Trump’s presidency than Pence, who served as his fawning No. 2, always trying to be at the president’s side, often shouldering cleanup duty or rounding out the sharp edges. He vouched for Trump despite objecting to his plans to ban Muslims from travel to the United States, his sexual assault comments on an “Access Hollywood” tape and his racist attacks on a federal judge. But the two men finally broke over the outcome of the 2020 election, culminating when Trump attacked Pence on Twitter on Jan. 6, 2021, while a violent mob marched on the U.S. Capitol chanting “Hang Mike Pence!”

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

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

“Pence is in a position similar to Biden in the spring of 2019,” said Tim Phillips, a veteran conservative strategist who previously ran 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 allowed him to be in a position to win when the campaign came to him.”

The 2024 campaign, however, has yet to turn 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 put him in the mid-single digits with little buzz, despite near universal name recognition. But with a decision on running still months away, he is keeping the schedule of a presidential candidate, crisscrossing the early states for private meetings with activists, laying out policy addresses 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 argues that Trump was the only Republican who could have beat Democrat Hillary Clinton in 2016. He still credits Trump with giving a new lease on life to 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 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 “taken aback” by the possibility that Trump could be arrested if a Manhattan district attorney successfully obtains an indictment on charges related to hush money paid to porn star Stormy Daniels. Trump on Saturday angrily called for protests if such an arrest happens.

“It reeks of the kind of political prosecution that we endured in the days of the Russia hoax and the whole impeachment over a phone call,” Pence said, referring to a special counsel probe and Trump’s first impeachment.

And in an interview Sunday on ABC News, he downplayed any concerns that Trump’s call for protests could lead to violence. “I believe that people understand that if they give voice to this — if this occurs on Tuesday — that they need to do so peacefully and in a lawful manner,” he said.

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

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

Trump’s position on not making changes to Medicare and Social Security remains unchanged since 2016 and 2020. “My perception was always that was a work in progress,” Pence said. “I was optimistic that we were going to get to it.”

He has written and spoken publicly about Trump’s role in the effort to overturn the 2020 election result and in inspiring the rioters who attacked the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, saying that history will hold Trump accountable. But his attorneys have also filed objections to Pence testifying before a grand jury investigating Trump’s role, arguing that at least some part of what he would be asked about could be covered by the “speech or debate” clause of the U.S. Constitution, which protects legislative actions from executive branch investigation.

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

When asked in Manchester if he would still be running on the Trump ticket had the former president taken his advice and conceded the election in 2020, Pence stopped walking to his next appointment and thought a moment.

“What a great hypothetical that was,” he said, without offering an answer.

Then he recounted a story, quoting almost word for word from his recent memoir, about a private conversation with Trump in the Oval Office, with Pence standing by the couch near the clock. His suggestion that Trump “take a bow” and run again in 2024, and a moment of pause in the president’s face.

“He just pointed at me and then squinted his eyes and walked into a backroom,” Pence said of Trump, who never took the advice. “And I’ll always wish he had.”

Many Republican voters, however, remain skeptical of Pence — with some hardcore 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 dubious of the guy who spent all those years square-jawed and standing just behind Trump.

In a recent episode of “The Focus Group,” a podcast on the anti-Trump conservative website The Bulwark, Republican strategist Sarah Longwell shared snippets of a focus group featuring two-time Trump voters who, like Pence, also identify as evangelical. While the participants were more sympathetic to Pence than some of the nonevangelical groups — who were often brutally dismissive of him — they, too, were not supportive of him as a Republican candidate.

Several said they didn’t really know much about Pence or what he stood for, with one man likening 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 that she’s done,” the man said.

“Every single one said the same thing about Mike Pence: He’d be a fine neighbor, but why would anyone vote him?” Longwell said. “It’s not just that they wouldn’t vote for him — but that nobody would vote for him.”

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

“He’s got 95 percent name I.D., but most people don’t know who he is,” said one Pence adviser, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss campaign strategy. “When they meet this guy, they really like him.”

Pence works voters with a frictionless comfort born of thousands of grip-and-grins in countless rooms with voters and activists. He knows just how to bare his teeth for a kind half-smile that looks natural in the photo line. He makes eye contact with every voter he meets, and laces his stump speech with folksy language and boasts about his three grandkids born in the last two years.

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

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

Parker reported from Washington.

2024 presidential candidates

Several major Republican candidates and three Democrats have officially declared they are running for their party’s 2024 presidential nomination, and plenty of others are making moves. We’re tracking 2024 presidential candidates here.

Republicans: Top contenders for the GOP 2024 nomination include former president Donald Trump, who announced in November, and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. Here is The Post’s ranking of the top 10 Republican presidential candidates for 2024.

Democrats: President Biden has officially announced he is running for reelection in 2024. Author Marianne Williamson and anti-vaccine advocate Robert Kennedy Jr., both long-shot candidates, are also seeking the Democratic nomination. Here is The Post’s ranking of the top 10 Democratic presidential candidates for 2024.