In fact, as Pence met privately with about 400 pastors in the cavernous First Baptist Church downtown and traveled across South Carolina, hobnobbing with and fundraising for Christian groups and conservative candidates, he spoke with an almost reverence about the former president.
What was important, he told supporters, was Trump’s accomplishments in office and how close the two men remain.
“When the vice president told us he’d spoken to President Trump seven or eight times over the past few weeks, it was clear there was still a connection point between them,” said Dave Wilson, the head of the Palmetto Family Council, which organized a dinner Thursday in Pence’s honor. “There is a great opportunity for people to actually realize and recognize that leadership.”
“There was nothing negative at all said” about Trump, said state Sen. Josh Kimbrell, who had invited Pence to South Carolina.
Pence’s carefully orchestrated reemergence onto the public stage — meeting with evangelical pastors and top donors in a key early presidential primary state exactly 100 days into Joe Biden’s administration — is the beginning of groundwork he is laying for a potential 2024 bid. It is a delicate dance for the former vice president, who is trying to chart his own political future while being inextricably tied to Trump, who has declared he might run again.
Some Trump supporters are livid that Pence did not try to block Congress’s recognition of Biden’s victory, as the former president urged him to do. Trump critics are dismayed that Pence did not publicly speak out against the former president’s efforts to subvert the election results. He has even come under excoriating criticism from Trump himself, who has described Pence as a letdown in conversations with friends and book authors who have interviewed him recently, according to people familiar with his comments, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe private discussions.
“I was so disappointed” in Pence, Trump told GOP donors in Florida several weeks ago.
Pence’s office declined to comment on the former president’s remarks.
During his South Carolina swing, Pence made clear that he plans to stick to the strategy he employed during his four years in the White House: total fealty. After a brief personal freeze in their relationship in the aftermath of the Jan. 6 attack, the former vice president has steadfastly declined to condemn Trump’s actions, even though they put him in personal jeopardy.
“We made America greater than ever before,” Pence said in Columbia, calling the “privilege” of serving beside Trump “the greatest honor of my life.”
“It was four years of consequence, four years of result, four years of promises made and promises kept,” he added.
Advisers say Pence has a long relationship with Trump and sees little value in creating any distance between himself and the party’s most popular figure.
Since leaving the vice presidency, Pence has largely stayed out of the limelight, settling in Northern Virginia, sealing a book deal and writing an occasional op-ed for the Daily Signal, a publication run by the Heritage Foundation. In April, he had surgery to have a pacemaker implanted.
His potential 2024 path, allies believe, lies in part with Christian conservatives, with whom the former Indiana governor has a strong relationship.
Pence and his political team see South Carolina as a state critical for him to have a chance in the next White House race, with some of his advisers saying privately that they believe Trump ultimately will not run. The former vice president visited Charleston for a private speech this year, and he has kept in touch with religious leaders and consultants in the state, such as political consultant Walter Whetsell.
“From on the ground, he fits South Carolina pretty darn well. He fits the landscape of how to win a Republican primary,” Whetsell said. “You go back to the history of the upstate and the evangelical Christian vote. He carries with him the positives of the Trump experience and speaks with credibility.”
Pence is expected to return to South Carolina in June, an adviser said, and is scheduled to speak at a Republican Party event this summer in California and a donor event in Texas this summer.
On Thursday, he visited heavily evangelical areas of the state, speaking to largely White audiences. His remarks at the Columbia convention center received polite applause — and two standing ovations, one when he arrived, and one when he left. There were no protests or heckling. But there was little electricity in the ballroom.
At times, the former vice president seemed to pause after delivering a line, waiting for applause that never came. “Jackpot,” he said, describing what he and Trump heard when monitoring a raid that killed a terrorist. The ballroom was silent. At one point during his speech, 52 people were watching on a Facebook live stream.
One of his biggest applause lines came after he referred to making “electoral integrity” a key issue in 2022. Pence did not parrot Trump’s false claims that the election was stolen, but he did call for stricter laws, including voter ID. He devoted one sentence to the events of Jan. 6, calling it a “tragedy” at the Capitol.
During his 32-minute remarks, he repeatedly used the phrase “the Trump-Pence administration.”
GOP strategists said Pence’s complicated dynamics with Trump are a challenge for the former vice president.
“It’s split. There are some people here who are so much in love with Trump that they are still mad at him,” said Chip Felkel, a longtime South Carolina political strategist. “There are people who say he was on the team, he was a loyal supporter of the president and he got him support where he needed it, but they aren’t quite sure he is the future of the party.”
Chad Connelly, a conservative faith leader, said more than 400 pastors sought to attend a private panel he hosted with Pence in Columbia, where he said the former vice president described leading Bible study from the Executive Office Building.
“When I got home last night, I had 77 texts from pastors I had invited there, and they were all positive. They said he’s one of us, he’s a normal American guy — he’s been through life, he’s had challenges, good or bad,” Connelly said.
The pastor event and several other appearances Pence made in the state were closed to news organizations, including a fundraising luncheon in Spartanburg, where he appeared on behalf of Kimbrell, a conservative state senator. He took no questions from the media, including from reporters who waited for him outside a church and shouted queries at him.
Kimbrell, who said he urged Pence to run for president from the stage, said he wasn’t sure what kind of reception the former vice president would get after Trump lambasted him for refusing to challenge the electoral college vote Jan. 6.
“There's been a lot of stuff said about how people viewed him after January 6. I didn’t see that at all. He was received very warmly, even beyond my expectations,” Kimbrell said. “He’s going to be here early and often.”
In Columbia, Pence met privately with some of the Palmetto Family Council’s top donors inside the convention center, where attendance was limited to about 360 because of the coronavirus. In his public remarks, Pence heaped praise on the group, which promotes biblical values and opposes same-sex marriage and abortion and has been a leading opponent of transgender athletes playing women’s sports in South Carolina. There were few masks worn by those attending his speech.
Wilson, the group’s leader, said it was their biggest day of fundraising in the history of the organization.
Unlike Trump — who ripped up his speech to GOP donors last month before going on a long riff about unsubstantiated fraud claims in the election and attacking Republicans with profanities — Pence stuck to his script Thursday.
He told a personal story about becoming a Christian in 1978 and liberally quoted Bible verses.
“God isn’t done with America yet,” he said.
After saying he felt his heart flutter after his recent pacemaker procedure, he said it had not done that since he met his future wife, Karen Pence. He joked about the “left hand not knowing what the far-left hand” of the Democratic Party is doing.
Pence also touted the three Supreme Court justices put on the court while he was vice president, attacked Planned Parenthood, slammed Biden, praised the moving of the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem and touted additional spending for the military and the creation of a vaccine. It was much of the same speech that he gave on the campaign trail as a surrogate for Trump.
He tried to deliver hope to the crowd ahead of the 2022 midterms. “You look back at 2010. You look back at 1994. It’s going to look familiar,” Pence said, with Republicans winning back the House after Democrats won the presidency.
After both of those midterms, the Democrats kept the White House two years later.