DES MOINES, Iowa — Former Vice President Mike Pence, who certified the 2020 election results under threat from supporters of then-President Donald Trump, kicked off a bid for the Oval Office on Wednesday.
On his 64th birthday, Pence, the former Indiana governor and six-term congressman, released a launch video taking whacks at President Joe Biden by name and Trump by implication.
“President Joe Biden and the radical left have weakened America at home and abroad,” Pence says in a self-narrated 2½-minute montage of Americana. “We can turn this country around. But different times call for different leadership.”
Turning more squarely toward the oft-spiteful Trump, Pence adds, “Today, our party and our country need a leader that will appeal, as Lincoln said, to the better angels of our nature.”
He is scheduled to speak to supporters in Des Moines later in the day.
One of three candidates to enter the GOP primary field this week — former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie jumped in Tuesday, and North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum is expected to announce Wednesday — Pence sees Iowa’s first-in-the-nation caucus as fertile ground for his brand of traditional and faith-based conservatism.
There is little question that he faces a steep uphill battle to compete for the party’s nomination when Trump has a majority of GOP voters in most national polls and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is running a clear second with 22.4% in the RealClearPolitics average of recent surveys.
Pence is in fourth place, behind Trump, DeSantis and Nikki Haley, the former U.S. ambassador to the U.N., with less than 4% in the RealClearPolitics average.
But beyond the numbers, a Pence comeback would require an epic reversal of political dynamics within the GOP.
Less than three years ago, Pence hid as a mob spurred on by Trump ransacked the Capitol. Some in the crowd, angry over his refusal to block the certification of the 2020 defeat of the Trump-Pence ticket, chanted, “Hang Mike Pence!”
It was a dramatic turn for a loyal partisan who had spent his years in the vice presidency nodding at Trump’s side. At times, Pence’s support was crucial to Trump, particularly when they first ran together in 2016.
Back then, some conservatives — particularly evangelical Christians — were wary that Trump would stray from the Republican base. Others were appalled by his personal conduct, including the release of an “Access Hollywood” tape in which Trump bragged about the ease with which he could sexually assault women with impunity.
Now, like the other Republicans in the race, he faces the immense challenge of cutting into Trump’s support and consolidating the universe of GOP voters who bear antipathy toward Trump or are simply open to another candidate.
And while Pence has near-universal name recognition among voters, an asset for most candidates, his low poll numbers suggest his challenge is complicated by the fact that the electorate’s views of him has already been formed.
“Mike Pence is a true conservative and a great public servant,” said Dan Eberhart, a GOP donor who backs DeSantis. “He just doesn’t have the support among Republicans that he needs to be competitive.”
Pence campaign officials are well aware that they have to recast the public narrative about him. They hope they can reintroduce him not as Trump’s vice president or as the man who stood between the mob and the Constitution but as the conservative leader he was in Congress and in Indiana.
Pence, an advocate for President George W. Bush’s wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, has been steadfast in his support for U.S. aid to Ukraine when Trump and DeSantis have questioned the wisdom of that mission.
He has also distinguished himself from the front-runners by calling for cuts to Social Security and Medicare, a policy position that is popular with economic conservatives but anathema to more populist Republicans.
As a member of the House, Pence stood against Bush as a leader of a rebel group that opposed his enactment of a prescription drug program for Medicare. He was also a leading advocate for dead-on-arrival conservative-faction budgets that would have slashed entitlement programs.
On abortion, an issue that has fractured the GOP since the Supreme Court overturned federal protection for the procedure last year, Pence has called for a national ban. Trump, who appointed three of the justices who voted in the majority, has stopped short of that. DeSantis, who recently signed a six-week ban into law in Florida, has avoided the question of whether he would sign a measure outlawing abortion across the nation.
Pence’s throwback Republican platform — strong national defense, reductions in spending and conservative social policy — has allowed allies to see a glimmer of hope in Iowa, which is why he is launching his campaign there.
“We view this race as absolutely wide open, and Iowa is really going to solidify itself as the pivotal player,” a person familiar with Pence’s plans said last week. “It’s a place that values Mike Pence’s principles — traditional conservative principles — deep-rooted faith and uncommon character.”