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His own man? Mike Pence tries to separate himself from Donald Trump as both eye 2024

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His own man? Mike Pence tries to separate himself from Donald Trump as both eye 2024

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WASHINGTON – As various Republicans ponder a presidential run in 2024, most observers expected at least one of the candidates to distance themselves from front-runner and former president Donald Trump.

Few expected that candidate to be Mike Pence.

Yet the former vice president has been on a months-long effort to divorce himself from the less popular parts of the Trump agenda, all with an eye on a presidential bid of his own in two years.

While prospective Republican candidates for 2024 are careful to stay on Trump’s good side – he remains very popular with the GOP rank-and-file – it is the uber-loyal vice president who is emerging as the biggest scold of the ex-president. 

Pence does often praise the record of the man who made him vice president, but he has also made high-profile criticisms of Trump over his protests of the 2020 election and his admiration of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Pence also seems intent on mounting his own presidential campaign in 2024, whether Trump runs or not – a potentially unprecedented battle between a former vice president and the former president he served under.

“We cannot win by fighting yesterday’s battles, or by re-litigating the past,” Pence told a group of Republican donors this month in New Orleans, urging party members to stop protesting the 2020 presidential election – Trump’s favorite topic.

Pence did not cite Trump by name, but also used the New Orleans speech to deplore the ex-president’s praise of Russian President Vladimir Putin after his invasion of Ukraine. “There is no room in this party for apologists for Putin,” Pence told the wealthy GOP donors.

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As Pence studies a presidential campaign of his own in two years, analysts said he faces a basic challenge: Trump and allies still criticize him for not helping them overturn the 2020 loss to President Joe Biden, and Trump is likely to make another run of his own in 2024.

Trump’s Republican critics, meanwhile, still regard Pence with suspicion because of his past loyalty to the 45th president.

If he follows through and runs in 2024, Pence’s past with Trump will be a major problem.

Even as some Trump supporters dislike Pence for his refusal to overturn the election, Republican political consultant Liz Mair said that “non-Trumpers yawn at him, and some of them revile him for being too socially conservative. Never Trumpers also don’t love that he got in bed with Trump” in the first place.

A long-term Jan. 6 strategy

Pence’s New Orleans speech was not an anomaly; it was the latest move in a year-long project for the former vice president to emerge as his own political force beyond Trump.

Most of that effort revolves around the events of Jan. 6, 2021, the day Pence presided over the congressional session to certify Biden’s win in the Electoral College – a session interrupted by pro-Trump insurrectionists who stormed the Capitol in a failed effort to change the result.

Trump had demanded that Pence use his position as presiding officer to essentially throw out the electoral votes from pro-Biden states. Pence said he lacked the legal authority to make such a move. Some of the rioters responded by yelling things like “Hang Mike Pence!”

Pence continues to make his case about Jan. 6 on the quasi-campaign trail, starting shortly after the riot.

“President Trump and I have spoken many times since we left office, and I don’t know if we’ll ever see eye-to-eye on that day,” Pence said in a June speech in New Hampshire, which just happens to be the state likely to hold the first presidential primary of 2024.

That same month, during a formal address at the Ronald Reagan library in California, Pence went further in disputing Trump’s continuing claim that he had the authority to change the election.

“There’s almost no idea more un-American than the notion that any one person could choose the American president,” Pence said in a speech that was part of a library speakers’ series on the future of the Republican Party.

Trump has also continued to make his case, claiming that Pence let down him and his supporters by refusing to rule some of Biden’s electoral votes out of order.

“Unfortunately, he didn’t exercise that power, he could have overturned the Election!” Trump said in January.

Pence stepped up his separation from Trump in February with a speech before a Federalist Society meeting in Florida. “I heard this week that President Trump said I had the right to overturn the election,” he said. “President Trump is wrong,”

Then came the New Orleans speech.

Pence may soon have a higher profile perch to air his differences over Jan. 6. The special congressional committee investigating the insurrection, and Trump’s instigation of it via his efforts to overturn the election, is considering seeking voluntary testimony from Pence. Committee members have already spoken with some former vice presidential aides.

Middle ground

To be sure, Pence has also praised Trump and their joint record in the White House. He also defended Trump supporters, using them to attack the media over its coverage of the Trump-Pence administration in general and Jan. 6 in particular.

In October, Pence told Sean Hannity of Fox News that some journalists “want to use that one day to try and demean the character and intentions of 74 million Americans who believed we could be strong again and prosperous again and supported our administration in 2016 and 2020.”

Allies of Pence, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss internal consultations, said the former vice president is trying to forge a political identity that seems to mesh Trump-ism with more traditional Republican doctrine, a program they say can win in 2024.

The goal is to try to combine Trump’s record – tax cuts, regulation reductions, conservative judges, more energy production – with more traditional conservatism, particularly on social issues like “pro-life” policies, “religious liberty,” and “school choice” issues.

Supporters of Pence pointed to the mission statement of his political advocacy committee, Advancing American Freedom. It “promotes and defends the successful policies of recent years that yielded unprecedented prosperity at home and restored America’s strength abroad, while elevating traditional American values.”

A fine line to walk

If Trump runs in 2024, he would be a solid favorite, and Pence would be a decided underdog, according to a variety of early polls.

A Harvard University Center for American Political Studies/Harris poll last month put Trump at 63% in a GOP race for a 2024 presidential nomination, with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis second at 11%; Pence polled third at 10%, according to data compiled on the FiveThirtyEight website.

Moving forward, analysts said, Pence may have trouble disassociating himself from Trump, who after all plucked him from the governorship of Indiana to become vice president.

The challenge comes from several angles, including Pence’s record of loyalty.

As Peter Bergen, a national security analyst with CNN, wrote in an opinion piece on that network’s website: “Let’s not forget that throughout Trump’s presidency, Pence treated his boss with the groveling obeisance of a North Korean butler waiting on the Dear Leader. Pence doesn’t have much credibility now that he’s trying to take the high road.”

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As Pence moves closer to a presidential bid, Trump and his staunchest supporters will likely step up their criticism at someone many of them have called “a traitor” to their cause.

Meanwhile, Republicans who plan to work against Trump should he run again in 2024 figure to be suspicious over Pence’s past loyalty.

“The socially conservative Never Trumpers see it as something of a cardinal sin and the socially moderate Never Trumpers see him as a massive, conniving hypocrite,” Mair said.

Olivia Troye, a former aide to Pence during his White House years, said he must walk a very fine line if he pursues the Republican presidential nomination.

“He’s going to do his best to try and create distance,” Troye said. “But he’s in a very tough spot trying to balance that while not further alienating the Trump base.”

Pence 2022 (and 2024)

Trump has all but said he plans to run again in 2024. Some Republicans are anxious for a strong challenger. One possibility, DeSantis, has avoided talk of a 2024 presidential bid because he faces a re-election challenge in Florida later this year.

Other Republicans are making noises about running, with the first primaries probably less than two years away. That group includes former secretary of state Mike Pompeo and Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton as well as Pence.

In addition to frequent speeches to political groups, Pence traveled to Israel this week to brandish some foreign policy credentials. While there, he dined with prominent Republican donor Miriam Adelson.

Pence is scheduled to travel in both April and May to South Carolina, which is expected to hold the first southern primary in 2024.

The former vice president is also writing a book, a traditional endeavor for a presidential candidate.

Like Trump, Pence is also seeking future favors by campaigning for Republican candidates in local, state and congressional race this year. Like Trump, he is looking for credit if the GOP regains control of the House and Senate.

Then comes 2024.

During an interview this week with Fox Business, Pence said “I’m confident the Republican Party will nominate a candidate who will be the next president of the United States of America. And at the right time, my family and I will reflect and consider how we might participate in that process.”

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His own man? Mike Pence tries to separate himself from Donald Trump as both eye 2024