For a governor who says he is focused squarely on his home state of Indiana, Republican Mike Pence keeps popping up elsewhere.
There he was in Palm Beach, Fla., in February, evangelizing free-market conservatism and drawing a standing ovation from wealthy donors at a private dinner. In Germany last month, he assailed what he called President Obama’s “policy of conciliatory diplomacy.” In Milwaukee, he urged the Republican faithful last week to “never relent.”
Pence is also quietly cultivating influential Washington figures such as Bill Kristol and Gary Bauer, while becoming one of the loudest voices attacking Common Core, a set of education benchmarks that has sparked a revolt among tea party activists.
The moves bear the hallmarks of a potential run for president in 2016 — and some GOP leaders have begun talking up Pence as an under-the-radar standard-bearer who could return the party to the White House, according to interviews with more than two dozen prominent Republicans. They say the talk-radio-host-turned-congressman-turned-governor has the capacity to electrify grass-roots voters while uniting the constituencies that make up today’s deeply divided Republican Party.
“Pence could bridge really every group — the social conservatives, the fiscal conservatives, the foreign policy conservatives,” said Chris Chocola, president of the Club for Growth and a friend of Pence’s. “He’s not viewed as a fringe guy.”
In an interview with The Washington Post, Pence acknowledged that he is weighing his 2016 options amid calls from some supporters to consider a presidential run.
“In the last few months, people have reached out,” he said. “I’m listening.”
At 54, Pence — who was also briefly talked about as a presidential candidate in the 2012 cycle — has the option of waiting four or eight more years to make a White House bid. He is in his first term as Indiana’s governor and will be up for reelection in 2016.
The new pressure to think hard about a presidential race comes amid continuing turmoil in the potential GOP field. Former Florida governor Jeb Bush says he is unsure about whether to run, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie has been seriously damaged by a bridge lane-closure scandal and Sen. Rand Paul (Ky.) and his libertarian views on foreign policy are considered unpalatable by the party’s hawks.
But Pence would face several serious challenges in a crowded group of Republican stars, including the need to raise tens of millions of dollars to be considered a viable candidate. He also would have to assemble a national network and boost his name recognition beyond the engaged partisans who remember him from his days as a rabble-rouser in the House, where he served for 12 years, including two as chairman of the Republican conference.
Pence traveled to Michigan on Wednesday night to raise money for Republican Gov. Rick Snyder’s reelection campaign and will be in New York on Monday to attend a gathering of Wall Street financiers and conservative columnists at the Grand Hyatt hotel in Manhattan. Next month, he will visit Alabama to give the keynote address at the state GOP’s convention.
“My message is about how I think the wellspring of national renewal is what is happening in the states,” Pence said. “I am someone who doesn’t believe there is something wrong with the Republican agenda. What our party needs to do is renew our confidence in our ideals and carry that message to every neighborhood.”
Former House Republican leader Richard K. Armey (Tex.) likened Pence’s political talent to Ronald Reagan’s, and predicted that he could become a top-tier candidate. “He would start out with people like, ‘Who is he?’ ” Armey said. “But then they’d say, ‘Hey, have you listened to this guy?’ and he would catch on.”
Armey added, “If Mike got in the race, I’d probably endorse him immediately.”
A longtime Republican strategist with both establishment and social conservative ties explained the growing interest in Pence: “The right is always waiting for Godot, wandering around on this barren beach with a metal detector looking for that buried Manchu dynasty, solid-gold vase that’s going to both be the real deal — it’s in his heart, he’s one of us — but can also raise money, has credibility and might be able to win. And that’s the promise that Pence offers.”
When Pence took office in January, he inherited a relatively stable state government from former governor Mitch Daniels, a Republican celebrated for balancing Indiana’s budget with austerity measures and clashing with public-sector unions. Pence’s tenure has been low-key by comparison.
“Pence still needs a big thing,” said Grover Norquist, an anti-tax activist. “If he’s going to be up there at a primary debate, alongside governors like Rick Perry, Bobby Jindal and Scott Walker, he is going to need something more.”
Last year, Pence sought a 10 percent cut in the state income tax, but the GOP-controlled legislature agreed to only a 5 percent cut. He also shepherded a repeal of the state’s inheritance tax.
Pence said he is perhaps most proud of his state’s improving economy. The jobless rate has fallen to 5.9 percent since he took office, slightly lower than the national average. “We are the fiscal envy of the country,” he said.
Battling Common Core — math and reading standards for grades K-12 that 44 states and the District have fully adopted — has become a signature issue for Pence. He successfully pushed to replace it with targets “written by Hoosiers, for Hoosiers.”
The new state standards do not differ significantly from Common Core, however, and some conservatives have criticized Pence for pursuing them. And Democrats say opting out of Common Core — Indiana became the first state to do so — was an orchestrated appeal to the Republican base in anticipation of a presidential run.
“Everything that has been done in Indiana — the Common Core, the two tax cuts — has been done solely for how it plays in a presidential race,” said John Gregg, a Democratic former state House speaker who lost to Pence in the 2012 governor’s race.
Nationally, many Democrats dismiss Pence as a weak potential challenger to former secretary of state Hillary Rodham Clinton, who leads the party’s field of possible 2016 candidates.
“Clinton would be heavily favored,” said Robert Shrum, a longtime Democratic consultant. “All of this sudden talk about Mike Pence is more of a reflection of the decline of Chris Christie and the need for the Republican establishment to find an alternative.”
But former Mississippi governor Haley Barbour, an influential GOP establishment voice, said Pence’s experience as governor would serve him well in a presidential run.
“He’s got executive responsibility, and that’s an advantage,” Barbour said. “I think people around the country will like him the more they get to know him.”
Bauer, a former presidential candidate who has run several social conservative organizations, including the Campaign for Working Families, said Pence has earned a reputation for being “solid in his votes and in his views, but also being Reaganesque in how he presents those views.”
In conversation, Pence is known for a soft and smooth Midwestern patter, honed during his years as host of “The Mike Pence Show,” a 1990s talk-radio program in Indiana that Pence has described as “Rush Limbaugh on decaf.” On the stump, he turns up the volume, and he is known as a fiery speaker on the conservative circuit.
There is little evidence that Pence has made overtures to key Republicans in the states that will hold early caucuses or primaries. But there are pockets of support for him already, especially among evangelicals, who hold outsize influence in Iowa and South Carolina. Pence strongly opposes abortion and same-sex marriage — both crucial issues for them.
“He would be a force to be dealt with,” said Bob Vander Plaats, a social-conservative leader in Iowa. “He’s not going to walk away from the sanctity of human life. He’s not going to walk away from God’s design for the family and marriage. He fully understands whose role it is to raise and nurture the children.”
Pence was not always a prototypical evangelical Republican. His parents were Roman Catholic Democrats and displayed pictures of John F. Kennedy in the family’s home.
Pence’s alliance with the GOP’s business wing is also strong. He was one of the Club for Growth’s first endorsements soon after it was formed in 1999, and he addressed the group’s conference in Florida earlier this year. Stephen Moore, a conservative economist and the organization’s co-founder, is a Pence confidant, while industrialist David H. Koch was a major backer of his 2012 gubernatorial campaign.
Kristol, the editor of the Weekly Standard, is Pence’s link to the foreign policy community and informally advised Pence as the governor prepared for his trip to Germany. The two met recently for lunch at the Hamilton, a restaurant a block east of the White House, and later compared notes at a policy seminar.
In Berlin, Pence bemoaned Obama’s handling of Russia and called for “immediate steps to deploy a robust missile defense” in parts of Eastern Europe.
Despite all his travels, Pence casts himself as flattered and undecided on a 2016 run.
“I’m a small-town kid who grew up with a cornfield in the back yard and dreaming of serving my country in public office,” he said. “The future will take care of itself.”