INDIANAPOLIS — Indiana Gov. Mike Pence has strong ideas about what the next Republican presidential nominee should be like.
A “solutions conservative” with a record of policy reform originating in the states. A candidate versed in foreign affairs who envisions a muscular role for the United States in the world. And someone who is “relentlessly optimistic” — and capable of attracting new voters to the Republican Party as Ronald Reagan did a generation ago.
As it happens, that sounds an awful lot like Mike Pence.
“There’s a lot wrong with our national government, but there’s not a lot wrong with our nation,” Pence said in an interview here last week in his cavernous State Capitol office. “The people of this country are every bit as strong, as caring, as patriotic, as generous, as hard-working as they’ve ever been. . . . We’ve just got to have a government as good as our people.”
But once the questioning turned to his own future, Pence — who quietly has been weighing a 2016 run for the White House — clammed up.
“My focus is Indiana,” he said. Pence — who cannot be on Indiana’s ballot both for president and for governor — said he has begun laying the groundwork for his 2016 reelection. Last week, he introduced what would be a signature education reform package for the upcoming legislative session. His advisers said his state campaign would announce a huge fundraising haul at the end of the year.
Pence is not precluding a presidential run, however. Pence, his wife and their three college-age children are traveling to Israel to spend Christmas in the Holy Land — a common journey for presidential hopefuls. The governor plans to meet with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and give a major foreign policy speech. “I call Israel our most cherished ally,” he said.
Pence also has powerful boosters encouraging him to seek the presidency, including the billionaire industrialist brothers Charles and David Koch and media mogul Steve Forbes. For now, he said, he is keeping his head down — though after the legislature adjourns in April, he will assess the 2016 landscape and make a decision. Advisers said Pence would run if he felt his candidacy could fill a void.
“I believe in servant leadership and the servant always asks, ‘Where am I needed most?’ ” Pence said. “For me, public service is a calling, and ultimately, my family will approach it from that perspective — prayerfully, carefully, with humility and with a servant’s heart.”
The argument for Pence is as a potential uniter in a deeply divided Republican Party. As a business-friendly governor, he is well liked by GOP establishment donors but also has credibility with tea party activists.
In Congress, where he served for 12 years and rose in the leadership, Pence voted against then-President George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind education law, Medicare Part D and bank bailouts. And as an evangelical, Pence is comfortable speaking the language of the religious right.
Yet Pence also lags far behind other potential 2016 Republican candidates in many respects. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie is better known. Sen. Rand Paul (Ky.) is better organized. Sen. Ted Cruz (Tex.) is more electrifying. Former Florida governor Jeb Bush has a deeper fundraising base. And Texas Gov. Rick Perry and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker have more established records of executive accomplishment.
Still, some Republican insiders see Pence as the dark horse that can sprint past the others.
“If you were going to design a perfect candidate, it would be a governor who’s an economic conservative, a pro-life reformer, a strong communicator a la Ronald Reagan — and Pence would have to be at the top of your list,” veteran strategist Scott Reed said.
Pence, who is 55 and sports a full head of white hair, has a smooth but not overly polished delivery. One fan called him “a homespun Hoosier,” and admirers say he is the rare conservative purist who doesn’t frighten nonbelievers.
“Years ago on my radio show, I used to say, ‘I’m a conservative, but I’m not in a bad mood about it,’ ” said Pence, who hosted a show on talk radio in the 1990s. “I’ve always believed that civility in heavy doses is essential in self-government.”
But that talk radio background, and his hard-right positions as a House member, have Democrats seeing opportunities for attack. American Bridge, a Democratic opposition research shop, has been scrubbing Pence for months, including listening to his talk radio clips in search of incriminating comments that might brand him as an extremist.
“If he decides to throw his hat in the ring and join what promises to be a highly entertaining primary contest, he’s likely to hit a few bumps along the way,” said American Bridge spokesman Jesse Lehrich.
Pence, a grandson of Irish Catholic immigrants, grew up in rural Columbus, Ind. His father ran a few gas stations. He had three brothers, two sisters and a corn field in the back yard. The Pences were Democrats, and young Michael idolized Jack and Bobby Kennedy. But he said Reagan’s message inspired him to become a Republican.
Pence recalled a 2006 meeting with the late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.): “I said, ‘Well, I’m probably the only conservative in Congress who has a bust of your brother in his campaign headquarters.’ His eyes got really wide and he said, ‘Really?’ ”
Eric Holcomb, a longtime senior aide to former Indiana governor Mitch Daniels (R) now serving as chief of staff to Sen. Dan Coats (R-Ind.), said Pence’s collaborative tone is an asset. “With all the sniping that’s occurred in Washington, D.C., Pence is the exception to that noise,” he said. “He articulates positions in a very respectful way. When those communicators come along, people gravitate toward them.”
Pence has been talking informally with his small inner circle about a presidential campaign but has avoided making overt moves. This year, when some advisers recommended he start a political action committee and build a national organization, Pence said no. He has made only sporadic appearances outside of his state.
But Pence’s advisers point to advantages: Indiana has grown into a significant GOP money base, and Pence also could draw considerable support from the broader Koch network, where he is well liked and has nurtured connections. Marc Short, president of Freedom Partners, a Koch-backed super PAC, is a longtime Pence adviser.
Tim Phillips, president of another Koch-backed group, Americans for Prosperity, heaped praise on Pence for cutting taxes a few months after taking office: “He’s made Indiana a leader when it comes to moving forward with greater economic freedom.”
Pence predicted in the interview that 2016 may be a “foreign policy election.” With instability in the Middle East and rising economic and security threats in the Asia-Pacific region, Pence said Republicans must field a nominee who can “step into that moment” — especially if the Democratic nominee is former secretary of state Hillary Rodham Clinton.
“Looking forward, I’ll be one of the voices in the party that says that America has a place in the world, a responsibility in the world as a beacon of freedom,” Pence said.
In Congress, Pence served on the House Foreign Affairs Committee and was a strong proponent of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. He traveled regularly to visit U.S. soldiers but drew mockery during a 2007 visit to Iraq with Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.).
The lawmakers were touring what appeared to be a peaceful market in Baghdad to make the point that U.S. journalists were harping too much on killings. Pence said that at the Shorja market, he was able to “mix and mingle unfettered among ordinary Iraqis” and that the scene was “like a normal outdoor market in Indiana in the summertime.” The lawmakers did not mention that the market also had been the site of routine sniper fire and deaths.
Bill Kristol, editor of the Weekly Standard, who has been advising Pence on foreign policy, said Pence’s legislative and executive experience gives him “an unusual niche.”
“Voters do want that anti-Washington outsider, but they also want someone who knows what he’s doing there,” Kristol said.
A challenge for Pence is his relatively thin record as governor. When Pence was elected in 2012, Daniels already had cut taxes, balanced the budget and spurred economic development.
“Mitch didn’t leave a lot of problems for him to fix,” said Chris Chocola, outgoing president of the Club for Growth. “It’s good, steady moves in the right direction, which may not be sexy, but it’s a solid record.”
In 2013, Pence repealed the inheritance tax, cut the corporate income tax rate and reduced the personal income taxes by 5 percent. He had sought a 10 percent cut in personal income taxes but compromised with the legislature.
Last week, he proposed a series of conservative education reforms — including expanding access to charter schools, pre-kindergarten and vocational training in high schools, and aligning teacher pay with classroom performance. Advisers believe the educational reforms could fill out the foundation of a presidential campaign.
“He can see himself as president,” said former congressman David M. McIntosh (R-Ind.), a close friend who is succeeding Chocola at the Club for Growth. “I don’t know whether he feels called to do it. My gut is he feels like he has more to do in Indiana. But he’s ready.”