CLEVELAND — Indiana Gov. Mike Pence looked on from the ground below as Donald Trump’s helicopter circled dramatically over Cleveland on Wednesday afternoon, waiting for the GOP presidential nominee’s official arrival at the Republican National Convention. When the chopper landed — the theme of “Air Force One” blaring on loudspeakers — the governor led a procession to greet the real estate mogul.
“We’re going to win Ohio, right? Come here, Mike,” Trump said into a microphone moments later, offering brief remarks to reporters and a rope-line of supporters. He signaled for Pence to shake his hand; Pence obliged heartily, finally looking comfortable.
The made-for-TV spectacle marked the start of a delicate dance for Pence, whose warm prime-time speech at the convention of Trump on Wednesday was light on policy specifics and heavy on adjectives. Trump is “genuine,” “independent,” “no-nonsense,” “tough,” Pence said.
“I’ll grant you, he can be a little rough with politicians on a stage, and I’ll bet we see that again. But I’ve seen this good man up close, his utter lack of pretense, his respect for the people who work for him and his devotion to his family,” he said to cheers at Quickens Loan Arena. “And if you doubt what I’m saying, remember, as we say back home, you can’t fake good kids.”
The Indiana governor’s embrace of Trump’s personal qualities comes even as he struggles to assuage skepticism among his longtime admirers over his decision to join the ticket with a man who many see as his polar opposite in both manner and idealogy. Pence acknowledged as much during his speech Wednesday, albeit lightheartedly: Trump, he said smiling, is “a man with a large personality, a colorful style and lots of charisma. It’s like, I guess, he was just looking for some balance on the ticket.”
[In picking Mike Pence, Donald Trump may have just given Democrats a boost]
On foreign and domestic affairs, Mike Pence is a starkly different shade of red than Trump: a man who has endorsed a robust American presence abroad and has been guided by his religious convictions at home. After the speech, it still remains to be seen how far Pence will go in supporting Trump’s unorthodox and largely isolationist policy agenda; and that question has stirred anxieties among longtime Pence allies and friends, who were surprised to hear his name rise to the top of Trump’s short list and shocked that Pence ultimately accepted the position.
Dan Senor, a veteran GOP strategist and foreign policy wonk, summed up the cognitive dissonance felt by many Pence admirers in a tweet he sent hours after the decision was announced: “It’s disorienting to have had commiserated w/someone re: Trump — about how he was unacceptable, & then to see that someone become Trump’s VP.”
Kevin Madden, a veteran GOP strategist and former adviser to 2012 GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney, said during a recent interview that vice-presidential candidates always have to juggle their own policy convictions against the agenda put forward by the top of the ticket. But the unruffled Pence, whose long career in public life has rested on his staunch conservative principles, is distinctly dissimilar to the celebrity real estate mogul, who is known for his brash and bombastic style.
Some political strategists say that the brand Pence has cultivated and his political future could be tainted irreparably by his decision to join the ticket.
“I think that this arranged marriage is going to force him into a bit of a two-step with his core policy principles,” Madden said. “It’s certainly something that he will have to wrestle with, more so than probably any other VP candidate that we’ve seen.”
[Why Mike Pence said ‘yes’ to Donald Trump]
For many Trump critics-turned-allies, Pence has helped quell concerns about Trump’s political inexperience and his unorthodox positions on a range of issues important to them.
“He brings a calmness to a very explosive nominee. And he’s also highly experienced in how to get legislation passed in Washington,” former Texas governor Rick Perry said.
Pence may yet overcome the criticism if he proves himself capable of installing himself as a guiding force in Trump’s inner circle, pushing the real estate mogul more in line with party orthodoxy on international trade and foreign affairs.
“Donald Trump is not someone who is seen as a policy wonk or who is very issue-interested. He is interested in selling big bold rhetoric,” Madden said. “If somehow [Pence] can demonstrate that he’s having an influence on Donald Trump, then that could be seen as a positive. … [But] he hasn’t demonstrated a capacity for changing.”
During the speech, he said urged voters to support Trump “for the sake of sanctity of life, for the sake of the Second Amendment. . . . We must assure that the next president appointing justices to the supreme court is Donald Trump.”
But Pence has also appeared to warm to Trump’s more controversial policies. Earlier this year, he called Trump’s proposal to temporarily ban Muslims from entering the United States “offensive and unconstitutional.” Trump has since moderated his rhetoric on the ban, speaking about it in geographic terms rather than implying a religious test. And Pence has recently come on board. His past criticism of Trump, however, will probably continue to define their relationship in the press in the coming months.
Their differences were put on display during an awkward interview with CBS’s “60 Minutes” shortly after the announcement. Pressed on Pence’s vote for the Iraq War in 2003, Trump attempted to defuse the criticism — and in so doing invited accusations of a double standard against his Democratic rival, Hillary Clinton.
“It’s a long time ago. And he voted that way and they were also misled. A lot of information was given to people,” Trump said. “He’s entitled to make a mistake every once in a while.”
Asked whether Clinton was entitled to the same second chances, Trump scoffed: “No. She’s not.”
[4 ways Mike Pence hurts Donald Trump’s case against Hillary Clinton]
Pence himself has already shown flashes of what it takes to be an effective attack dog for Trump. He took multiple swipes at his Democratic rival, Hillary Clinton, and President Obama during his speech, accusing Democrats of taking minority communities for granted and pledging that the Trump administration will champion working people.
“Over in the other party, if the idea was to present the exact opposite of a political outsider, the exact opposite of an uncalculating truth-teller, then on that score you’ve really got to hand it to the Democrat establishment. They outdid themselves this time,” he said.
Pence’s speech Wednesday night came after two tumultuous days here at the convention, which was considered by political strategists as an opportunity for Trump to present a united Republican Party ahead of a grueling general-election campaign against Clinton.
It was also seen as a chance to court persuadable voters who may be amenable to Trump’s message and strong rhetoric.
But several interruptions by members of the Never Trump movement also showcased continued resistance to Trump within several factions of the GOP. And key absences, including those of Ohio Gov. John Kasich and former Florida governor Jeb Bush, added to that perception.