Pence, tiptoeing away from Trump, lays the groundwork for the 24-year run

AMES, Iowa — For months, former Vice President Mike Pence walked away from his alliance of convenience with former President Donald J. Trump.

After four years of service bordering on subservience, an increasingly emboldened Pence is seeking to reintroduce himself to Republican voters ahead of a possible presidential bid by distinguishing himself from what many in the GOP see as the Mr. Trump’s worst impulses. He is part of a small group in his party that plans to run in 2024, regardless of Mr Trump’s decision.

Mr Pence first used high-profile speeches to criticize the former president’s efforts to overturn the 2020 election results, categorically stating that Mr Trump was ‘wrong’ in his claim that Mr Pence could have block the ratification of the Electoral College on January 6. , 2021. Mr. Pence then unsubtlely visited the Charlottesville, Va. memorial to Heather Heyer, who was killed in the 2017 white supremacy riot that Mr. Trump has sought to rationalize by blaming “the two sides”.

Now, outside Atlanta on Monday, Mr. Pence takes his boldest and clearest move to confront his former political boss. On the eve of Georgia’s primary, the former vice president will clash with Governor Brian Kemp, perhaps the main target of Mr. Trump’s 2022 revenge campaign against Republicans who did not bow to his election lies.

Mr. Pence has grown closer to Mr. Kemp during the pandemic and the 2020 campaign, and now he is lining up against Mr. Trump’s hand-picked candidate, former Senator David Perdue. But more than that, Mr. Pence is seeking to claim a share of credit in what is expected to be the most brutal repudiation yet of Mr. Trump’s bid to consolidate power, with Mr. Kemp widely expected to win.

It’s a stark rift between the former running mates, who haven’t spoken in nearly a year but also haven’t publicly waged a proxy war so far. Mr. Pence, his aides say, knows full well what the Georgia raid represents and the symbolism alone will remain without him targeting Mr. Trump or even Mr. Perdue in his remarks.

In a statement ahead of Mr. Pence’s visit to Georgia, Mr. Trump belittled his vice president through a spokesperson.

“Mike Pence was on the verge of losing a gubernatorial race in 2016 before he was snatched away and his political career salvaged,” said Taylor Budowich, the spokesman. “Now, desperate to chase his lost relevance, Pence is parachuting into the races, hoping someone will pay attention. The reality is, President Trump is already 82-3 with his endorsements, and there’s nothing stopping him from save America in 2022 and beyond.

Georgia may just be the start of a new rivalry.

In an interview ahead of a speech last month in Iowa, Mr. Pence pointedly refused to rule out the possibility of running even if Mr. Trump also enters the 2024 primary. “We will go where we are called” , Mr. Pence said, explaining that he and his wife would act on the prayer. “That’s how Karen and I have always approached these things.”

Recalling the gratitude he derives from his resistance to Mr. Trump’s demands to prevent Congress from declaring victory for President Biden, he said: “I was very moved to travel across the country how people wanted to express their appreciation, it was very humbling. volume.”

Yet in the same interview, he recalled spending “five years down the fox hole” with Mr. Trump, noting that he was “incredibly proud of the record”, before giving a dinner speech trumpeting the administration’ Trump-Pence” repeatedly.

His approach amounts to early polls of some sort of Trump strategy without the chaos, a bet that Republican primary voters yearn for the political record of the last administration, but without the impulsiveness, breaking of norms and naked demagoguery.

There may still be a constituency for such a call, as this year’s GOP primaries demonstrate just how flourishing Trumpism is no matter who its architect blesses.

However, it’s far from clear that the sober-minded Mr. Pence is the best vehicle for that message at a time when many GOP voters enthuse more about tight-fisted Trumpian pugnacity than power. of prayer.

From now on, Mr. Trump is the clear frontrunner. Yet all of his hints at becoming the first former president in more than a century to try to reclaim the job haven’t stopped a host of other would-be aspirants.

Whether it’s Mr. Pence or former Trump cabinet members or a string of other elected officials, ambitious Republicans are already visiting early candidate states like Iowa and New Hampshire, courting influential lawmakers. and cultivating relationships with donors.

Even if Mr. Trump runs, many Republicans believe there will still be a hotly contested race.

“I don’t think this ends the primary,” said Gov. Chris Sununu of New Hampshire, who is considering a presidential campaign. “My feeling is you’re still going to have a very robust primary here just because everyone has to earn it.”

So far, Republican candidates vote with their feet.

Among those who blazed a trail to early candidate states: Mr. Pence; former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo; former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley; and Senators Tom Cotton of Arkansas, Tim Scott of South Carolina and Rick Scott of Florida.

If Mr. Trump did run, he would most likely brush off some Republicans who find him hard to beat or wait right away. A small group of suitors, however, may find the less crowded field more appealing.

Those ranks include former Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey, who was an early and most prominent supporter of Mr Trump in 2016 but has broken with him since the 2020 election.

“Given the problems the country is facing at home and abroad, if you only feel that if someone else doesn’t show up, well, you better not show up,” Mr. Christie said. “Anyone considering running for president in 24 should have a moral obligation to make that decision, regardless of who else is running.”

As for his own plans, he said, “Of course, I’m considering it.”

Mr Trump’s populist and pugilist imprint on the party has been cemented whether he runs or not. That’s why Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida is so closely watched by conservative voters, donors and activists.

Seizing every opportunity to take on the left and the news media, and attract right-wing media coverage for both, Mr. DeSantis has risen to second place behind Mr. Trump in a series of polls. way too early with Republican voters. .

But he staunchly refused to travel to Iowa and New Hampshire as a potential White House candidate, leaving Florida primarily to hoard more money for re-election. That’s not to say he’s not keeping tabs on national politics — he contacted Gov. Kim Reynolds of Iowa to wish him luck ahead of his response to President Biden’s State of the Union address. This year.

Mr. DeSantis, however, is not well liked by his fellow Republican governors, a group that is unlikely to rally around him in the way George W. Bush, then governor of Texas, did in 2000.

“I know there’s a lot of talk about Fox News and things like that nationally or in Florida, but he’s really not being talked about here in New Hampshire,” Sununu said of Mr. DeSantis.

What’s out there, longtime Republican strategist Jim Merrill said, is a quiet but persistent appetite among many rank-and-file members to turn the page on Mr. Trump, at least as a party candidate.

“There’s a desire to move forward here and it’s not just among the crowd of John Kasich and Bill Weld,” Merrill said, referring to two former Republican governors who presented themselves as anti-Trump moderates. in the state primary.

Yet if Mr. Trump faces a divided Republican field as he did in the first wave of caucuses and primaries in 2016, he could again claim the nomination with a plurality rather than a majority in many states because of his seemingly unshakable hold on a third of his party’s electorate.

At a county GOP dinner in Ames — a more upscale and decidedly less Trump-oriented college community than much of Iowa — it wasn’t hard to find Republicans eager to find a new candidate, even though they said the same with Midwest Pretty euphemisms.

“He’s calm and predictable, so that’s a good thing,” Eric Weber said of Mr Pence.

Mr. Trump was “too divisive even though what he did is great,” Mr. Weber said as his wife, Carol, suggested another offer from Trump “could divide people.”

Still, they weren’t ready to sign Mr. Pence, as both noted their affection for Mr. Cotton and Mr. DeSantis.

Mr. Pence’s speech was well received, if not overwhelmingly. He sounded like a Republican from Iowa leaning toward a presidential bid — knowing the references to local politicians, Midwestern totems like John Deere and attacks on ruling Democrats in Washington.

Yet he also looked distinct from a brand of pre-Trump republicanism, with only the faintest of criticism from the news media (and even gloved with “all due respect”), references to becoming a grandfather and G-rated jokes that could just as easily have been delivered by Mitt Romney (it involved Washington, DC, and “hot air”.)

Few at the rally loved Mr. Pence as much as Kevin and Linda Lauver.

With their phones blaring with tornado warnings, the Lauvers took refuge in the basement of the Ames Country Club ahead of April’s GOP dinner. And they came across the keynote speaker for the evening.

“We want someone from the Midwest,” Ms. Lauver told Mr. Pence, urging him to run for president in 2024. “I like Mike,” Mr. Lauver added.

Mr. Pence sincerely patted his heart and offered his thanks.

As Mr. Lauver walked back upstairs after the false tornado warning, he wanted to make it clear that he loved Mr. Trump.

‘He did what he said he was going to do,’ Mr Lauver said, before adding in Iowa’s deadpan: ‘When he said the least, it was the best .”

Now, he continued, “We need him to say, ‘OK, I’m going to step aside.’ Then Mr. Lauver stopped.

“I don’t know if he will.”

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