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Photographer: Michael Ciaglo/Getty Images
President Donald Trump’s bid for a second term in office is giving Vice President Mike Pence an early edge in the race that’s already shaping up for the Republican nomination in 2024.
Pence has lately been a mainstay at Trump’s signature campaign rallies, seldom missing the opportunity to introduce the president while test-driving a few crowd-pleasing lines of his own. The vice president has his own political action committee and has been steadily expanding his travel as a surrogate for Trump, with a particular focus on Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania.
He’s scheduled to embark on a bus tour through Michigan on Tuesday without the president, who’s in India. It will include a speech to supporters in a hotel ballroom — a sort of mini-rally.
People in and around the White House believe it’s a foregone conclusion that Pence will seek to succeed Trump. But he hasn’t firmly decided, and his nomination, let alone his election, are much less certain.
“He’s entirely focused on re-electing Donald Trump in 2020,” said Pence’s chief of staff, Marc Short.
While 14 U.S. vice presidents have ascended to the White House, eight of them got there thanks to the death of the leader they served. Pence’s chances in 2024 would be undercut by a Trump loss this year; for better or worse, his loyalty to Trump binds him to the president.
“There’s no question that would be something Mike Pence would want to do; the question is where the Republican Party will be by the time he has the opportunity,” said Andrea Neal, author of “Pence: The Path to Power.” Some of Pence’s sixth-grade classmates recall him saying he wanted to be president, she said.
Taking the stage after the vice president at a rally last week in Colorado Springs, Colorado, Trump thanked Pence for the introduction.
“I heard he gave a great speech. I never want it to be too good. I never want it to be too good,” Trump said, wagging his finger. “I said ‘Mike, take it easy. It can’t be too good.’ Mike is great.”
Trump knows Pence is ramping up for a potential bid in 2024 and doesn’t mind, officials said.
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During a trip to South Carolina earlier this month — a state that’s considered safe for Trump in 2020 — Pence met privately with Walter Whetsell, a political consultant he knows from his time in Congress, said a person familiar with the matter. Whetsell couldn’t be reached for comment.
Pence’s remarks introducing the president at a rally in Las Vegas on Friday were littered with nods toward Trump slogans — “Make America Great Again,” “Keep America Great,” and “Build That Wall.” But he also repeatedly used a word uncommon to Trump: “faith.”
A staunchly pro-life Christian and conservative, Pence has bedrock support among evangelicals and other pillars of the Trump base. But a wide-open Republican field is expected to take shape in 2024, regardless of who wins this year, probably featuring former Trump administration officials and a crop of recently elected and ambitious Republican lawmakers.
Former UN ambassador Nikki Haley and Secretary of State Michael Pompeo are seen as almost-certain candidates; other possibilities mentioned by Republican strategists include Senators Rick Scott of Florida, Tom Cotton of Arkansas, and Josh Hawley of Missouri, as well as the governors of Texas and Florida, Greg Abbott and Ron DeSantis, and former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie.
“The constituency that he has sewed up may not be big enough for him to win the party’s nomination on his own,” Neal said of Pence.
Inside the administration, Pence, 60, is know for his unfailing loyalty to Trump. The vice president is wary of saying anything publicly that could be interpreted as criticism, and is steadfast in quoting the president’s own statements on thornier subjects. The two speak almost daily, often privately. Any advice or suggestions Pence might have for the president are delivered only in those private exchanges, aides say.
Among some Trump advisers there’s a sense that Pence, the former Indiana congressman and governor, lacks the showman’s instincts of his boss, to his detriment with the base of supporters that’s coalesced around Trump, the former reality TV star and real estate developer.
While Trump basks in the limelight of rallies, TV appearances and firing off incendiary tweets, Pence thrives more on the ground — his recent campaign travels have included stops at diners, coffee shops and VFW halls, the kind of grip-and-grin retail politics that the president has never embraced.
In Wisconsin in November, Pence stopped his motorcade in the middle of a road to get out and take photos with children who’d gathered outside their school. Later in the same trip, he made an unannounced stop at a diner, Mickey-Lu-Bar-B-Q, and ordered cheeseburgers for himself and a local congressman.
The waitress asked what toppings he’d like. “Load me up,” Pence replied.
Back in Washington, the fight over Trump’s impeachment raged. “We are with you all the way,” one woman said at the diner, leaning in to clutch Pence’s hand. Her son had been at a shipyard where Pence had spoken earlier in the day.
“They’re growing,” Pence said of the shipyard. “Did you know that?”
His cheeseburgers arrived, wrapped in white paper. He handed the waitress $20 — a tip of some $14 — before eating and dashing off.
In December, Pence made a bus tour through Pennsylvania, another key electoral battleground. He returned to the state after Trump’s State of the Union speech earlier this month.
‘Division of Labor’
Pence is trusted by both social and small-government conservatives, said David McIntosh, the president of the Club for Growth, which pressures Republicans to support lower taxes and reduced government spending. The vice president “thrives” at conventional retail politics, he said, freeing up Trump to headline large-scale campaign rallies.
“It’s a good division of labor,” said McIntosh, a fellow Hoosier who preceded Pence in representing Indiana’s second congressional district.
Pence makes time on his travels to meet with local Republican Party leaders, city officials and legislators — all crucial to building an election ground game, McIntosh said. He also courts input from conservative groups, including consulting on competitive House and Senate races.
“One of the things Mike does extremely well here in D.C. is make sure the national conservative groups feel heard in the White House,” McIntosh said.
Even in Trump’s long shadow he’s had signature moments. In September, Pence abruptly flew to Turkey to negotiate a cease-fire between President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s military and U.S. Kurdish allies after Trump abruptly ordered American forces withdrawn from northern Syria.
Taking on China
Pence has also been the most forceful critic of Chinese human rights abuses in the Trump administration, delivering a speech in October criticizing Beijing’s crackdown on protesters in Hong Kong. The Chinese government called the speech “lies.”
In late January, Pence flew to Israel and Italy to meet with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Pope Francis. On the way home, his aircraft stopped at Shannon Airport in Ireland to refuel at the same time as a plane carrying U.S. soldiers deploying to the Middle East.
“I didn’t want to miss the opportunity to get off Air Force 2 and tell you how grateful we are for each and every one of you,” Pence told the soldiers. He discussed the U.S. strike on Iranian General Qassem Soleimani, now a staple of Trump’s re-election speeches, telling the troops that by all accounts Iran was standing down.
“Beyond that, I’m just gonna take as many selfies as you all got time to do,” Pence said.
— With assistance by Jordan Fabian
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