Mike Pence Gears Up for the Debate Minefield


(By Philip Wegmann, RealClear Wire) In Milwaukee, they will all walk through “a minefield.”

“Voters need to hear how they see it, and the option that they’re trying to provide. It is very tricky territory for these candidates. They know that well,” explained Martha MacCallum, who will moderate the first GOP primary debate along with Bret Baier, during an interview with Vanity Fair.

The hazard for the eight Republicans who would become president themselves: the legal troubles of the former president. Donald Trump now faces four indictments. His competitors for the Republican nomination must address the myriad charges Trump faces without alienating Trump’s former voters.

Each campaign has been workshopping an answer to a version of the question that MacCallum and Baier will inevitably ask next week. For instance, to cut to the chase, they might press the candidates on whether they believe former Vice President Pence correctly certified the results of the 2020 election, and whether they would’ve done the same. This could be perilous for everyone except, well, Pence.

“He’s been clear that elections are about the future, not the past, and failure to recognize that was something that plagued our party in 2022. Having said that, his courageous actions on Jan. 6 will always be a differentiator between himself and Trump,” Marc Short, a senior Pence advisor, told RealClearPolitics.

“Long term, it will reflect more positively on Pence,” he added, “and will no doubt be a part of the conversation in this debate and future debates.”

For almost three years now, sometimes under oath and other times on the campaign trail, the former vice president has been answering questions about the 2020 election and the legal peril Trump now finds himself in for trying to overturn it. He had hoped it wouldn’t come to this, telling a CNN town hall in June that an indictment “would be terribly divisive to the country.” But he has consistently said the former president asked him to violate his oath of office.

And earlier this month, at the Iowa State Fair, he told reporters that “anyone who puts themselves over the Constitution should never be president of the United States.” It was the equivalent of crossing the MAGA Rubicon.

Pence World knew this was inevitable. A source close to the former vice president told RCP earlier this year that when voters are presented with the facts of the plot to overturn the 2020 election, “within 60 seconds,” voters will know that Pence is the most “committed constitutional conservative” in the race. And yet, after codifying his own split with Trump, Pence seemed almost exhausted with the question.

“I’ve written a book, I’ve done more interviews than I can remember, and as I’ve said, the American people deserve to know the truth,” Pence told RCP in a March interview, adding that he believes “history will hold the former president, and all those directly involved, accountable.” Then Pence changed the subject.

The legal drama, however, has turned the national discussion back to the frontrunner in the race who made history as the only former president to be indicted. Though he’d rather focus on the future, Pence hasn’t been afraid to talk about, or fundraise on, the past.

When Pence was mentioned in the second federal indictment for rejecting Trump’s efforts to overturn the election, his campaign rolled out merchandise referencing the former president’s gripe that his No. 2 was “too honest.”

Pence received more than 7,400 donations as a result, contributions that came in the nick of time. Candidates needed at least 40,000 individual donors to qualify for the first RNC debate, and while an advisor said the indictment swag didn’t put Pence over the top, it didn’t hurt either.

While three different courts will decide whether Trump broke the law, as a political question, the Republican electorate has already weighed in. The conservative base does not see his actions before or after the 2020 election as disqualifying. He has a nearly 40-point lead in the RealClearPolitics Average.

The New York Times reported earlier this summer that Republican pollsters and strategists had written Pence off. That was June 7, the day before the first federal indictment. More legal trouble followed. What’s more, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, once touted as Trump’s only serious competitor, has since tumbled in the polls. Pence allies see an opportunity, even if the timing is incidental.

“Ron DeSantis is flopping. Donald Trump is getting indicted. People are taking a closer look at Mike,” said Bobby Saparow, executive director of the pro-Pence super PAC, Committed to America. “He is right in the mix,” the GOP operative, who helped Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp fend off a Trump-backed challenger last year, told RCP. “It’s a way to get earned media attention, but he is resonating and climbing because people are looking for an alternative.”

The Trump indictments keep Pence in the news, and as Saparow sees it, that gives the former vice president an opportunity to pivot to other issues like how he’d handle the economy or foreign policy.

The cynicism surrounding the Pence candidacy is sharp. “Why does he think the people who wanted to kill him will vote for him,” conservative writer Jonathan Last recently asked in the pages of the Atlantic, a reference to rioters who chanted “Hang Mike Pence” as they stormed the capitol. But the first contest of the Republican primary remains months away, and allies of the former vice president still remind reporters that national polls don’t determine state contests. They say things can, and do, change.

“I don’t see a route for Pence, to be honest. But then again, he’s not unique in that – I don’t see a path for most of them,” Scott Jennings, a longtime adviser to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, told RCP. “But it’s never the wrong day to do the right thing and he’ll always be remembered for doing the right thing when it mattered most, whether this campaign works out or not.”

For now, at the very least, Pence has made the debate stage where he will navigate the minefield, the one which worries other candidates, with ease.