Former Vice President Mike Pence is expected to soon declare a long-shot campaign for the White House against the president under whom he served, pitching himself as a “classical conservative” who would return the Republican Party to its pre-Trump roots, according to people close to Mr. Pence.
Mr. Pence is working to carve out space in the Republican primary field by appealing to evangelicals, adopting a hard-line position in support of a federal abortion ban, promoting free trade and pushing back against Republican efforts to police big business on ideological grounds. He faces significant challenges, trails far behind in the polls and has made no effort to channel the populist energies overtaking the Republican Party.
In a sign his campaign will be announced in the coming weeks, a pro-Pence super PAC called Committed to America is being set up. A veteran Republican operative, Scott Reed, who ran Bob Dole’s 1996 presidential campaign and was the longtime top political strategist for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, will lead the group alongside Jeb Hensarling, a close friend of Mr. Pence’s who served with him in Congress.
Mr. Pence finds himself in the highly unusual position of being a former vice president trying to squeeze back into the national conversation. The political profile he built under former President Donald J. Trump was more supplicant than standard-bearer, at least until the rupture in their relationship on Jan. 6, 2021. He would begin far behind Mr. Trump and Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida in early national and state polls of 2024 Republican primary voters.
The Pence candidacy will focus heavily on winning over evangelical voters, especially in Iowa, where the super PAC is already preparing to organize all 99 counties. Iowa’s caucuses are the first contests for Republican presidential contenders early next year.
“Iowa feels more like Indiana than any other state in the union,” Mr. Pence, a former governor of Indiana, said in a recent interview. “It just feels like home.”
On a recent call with reporters, Mr. Reed, who will help lead the pro-Pence super PAC, described the Iowa caucuses as the “defining event” of Mr. Pence’s candidacy and foreshadowed an old-fashioned blitz of retail politics. “We’re going to organize Iowa, all 99 counties, like we’re running him for county sheriff,” he said.
If Mr. Trump represents the populist New Right, Mr. Pence is preparing to run for president in the mold of Ronald Reagan. His team’s improbable bet is that a “Reagan coalition” — composed of the Christian right, fiscal conservatives and national security hawks — can be reassembled within a party transformed by Mr. Trump.
“We have to resist the siren song of populism unmoored to conservative principles,” Mr. Pence said in the interview.
In a Tuesday night speech in New Hampshire focused on economics, Mr. Pence is expected to call for “free trade with free nations,” according to a person familiar with the draft.
He is casting himself as a “Reagan conservative” and staking out sharply different positions from Mr. Trump and Mr. DeSantis on the most important policy questions framing the Republican 2024 race. Still, running against Mr. Trump so directly will force Mr. Pence to confront the contradictions inherent in having served as the president’s yes-man for four years through the turmoil of the Trump administration.
“This campaign is going to reintroduce Mike Pence to the country as his own man,” Mr. Reed said. “People know Mike Pence. They just don’t know him well.”
It remains to be seen how frequently Mr. Pence will discuss the moment that has defined him for the last two years: his rejection on Jan. 6 of Mr. Trump’s pressure campaign to get him to exceed his constitutional authority while President Biden’s Electoral College victory was certified.
That issue is not a winning one with the base of the Republican Party. But Mr. Pence’s team believes there are enough Republicans who might be won over by Mr. Pence describing the moment as adhering to constitutional principles.
Mr. Pence stands almost alone among the prospective Republican field in advocating views that were once standard issue for his party.
Case in point: Mr. Pence says Social Security and Medicare must be trimmed back as part of any serious plan to deal with the national debt. Before Mr. Trump entered national politics in 2015, cutting entitlement programs was Republican orthodoxy. But Mr. Trump changed that. The former president has promised in his third campaign not to cut either program and he has attacked Mr. DeSantis on the issue, claiming the governor would cut those programs.
“It is fairly remarkable that Joe Biden and Donald Trump have the same position on fiscal solvency: The position of never going to touch Social Security and Medicare,” Mr. Pence said.
Mr. Pence said he would “explain to people” how the “debt crisis” would affect their children and grandchildren. He says his plan to cut benefits won’t apply to Social Security and Medicare payments for people in retirement today or who will retire in the next 25 years. But he will pitch ideas to cut spending for people under 40.
Mr. Pence is also drawing a stark contrast on foreign policy. Both Mr. Trump and Mr. DeSantis have questioned whether the United States should be supporting Ukraine in its fight against Russia’s invasion. Mr. Pence sees the battle as a modern version of the Cold War.
“There’s a bit of a movement afoot in the Republican Party that would abandon our commitment to being the leader of the free world and that questions why we’re providing military support in Ukraine,” Mr. Pence said.
Unlike almost every major Republican running for president, Mr. Pence still defends former President George W. Bush’s decisions to invade Afghanistan and Iraq, though he acknowledged in the interview that the “weapons of mass destruction” intelligence that Mr. Bush used to justify the Iraqi invasion was wrong.
“In the aftermath of September 11th, the president articulated a doctrine that I wholly supported,” Mr. Pence said, “which was that it’s harder for your enemies to project force if they’re running backward.”
Mr. Pence is also resisting the anti-corporate furies that are dominating Republican politics today, arguing limited government means not intervening in the private sector. He was one of the first major Republicans to criticize Mr. DeSantis for his fight against Disney.
In the view of New Right politicians such as Mr. DeSantis, limited-government conservatives are naïve to the fact that liberals have overtaken major American institutions — academia, Fortune 500 companies, the news media — and conservatives need to use governmental power to fight back.
Mr. Pence will run as a staunch social conservative, drawing a contrast with Mr. Trump on abortion policy. In his town hall with CNN last week, Mr. Trump repeatedly refused to say he would support a federal ban on abortion. He has said the issue should be left to the states.
Mr. Pence unapologetically endorses a national ban on abortion.
“For the former president and others who aspire to the highest office in the land to relegate that issue to states-only I think is wrong,” Mr. Pence said. His senior adviser, Marc Short, said Mr. Pence regarded a 15-week national ban as a “minimal threshold” and would support federal efforts to “protect life beginning at conception.”
There is little chance Mr. Pence will receive many endorsements from members of Congress. His team insists that Mr. Pence does not need elected officials to vouch for his credentials. Yet, it’s also unclear how many Republican donors will back his bid. An early sign of interest came last week in Dallas when the billionaire Ross Perot Jr., a real estate developer and son of the former presidential candidate, hosted a lunch for Mr. Pence with other major donors, according to two people with direct knowledge of the gathering.
Among the hires for the super PAC supporting Mr. Pence is Bobby Saparow, who led the ground game for Gov. Brian Kemp’s successful re-election campaign in Georgia in 2022, one of the few brights spots for Republicans in the midterms. Mr. Saparow promised to “replicate” the effort with Mr. Pence.
For now, Mr. Pence is signaling he’s willing to do without a staple of Republican presidential campaigns in the modern era: Mr. Trump’s smash-mouth politics and constant warfare against the media.
“People want to see us get back to having a threshold of civility in the public debate,” Mr. Pence said. “And when I say that, when I tell people that I think democracy depends on heavy doses of civility, I get a very visceral response from crowds.”
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