Pence’s trips to Iowa, South Carolina, spur White House chatter

In the unofficial race for president, just one Republican has been to both Iowa and South Carolina.

It’s not former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty or former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin.

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It’s Indiana Rep. Mike Pence, whose travel schedule is raising eyebrows.

Pence, the chairman of the House Republican Conference and a former head of the influential Republican Study Committee, made a quiet trip to South Carolina this week.

He was there to raise money for Rep. Gresham Barrett (R), one of his close friends and a candidate for governor in 2010, and Rep. Henry Brown Jr. (R). But he also met with about 100 party activists in Charleston, according to South Carolina sources, and delivered a well-received speech.

Pence also has traveled to Iowa to address a group of county Republican leaders. He has traveled to California to keynote the state GOP convention. He has headlined events in North Carolina, Kentucky, Nebraska, Florida and Ohio at the invitation of several allies in Congress. And he has addressed key conservative organizations like the Conservative Political Action Conference and the Value Voters Summit.

All those moves have stoked buzz that Pence is seriously considering running for president.

“Anybody showing up in a state that’s going to be first in the South, one that’s got a history that anybody who’s won the primary here has won the nomination, is not surprising,” said Katon Dawson, a former South Carolina Republican Party chairman and a friend of Pence’s.

Perhaps most intriguingly, Pence has allied himself closely with the so-called tea party movement, speaking to the crowd on the National Mall in September and giving a well-received speech to Americans for Prosperity (AFP), a tea party activist group, on Oct. 2.

“A lot of [attendees] did not know Congressman Pence yet. They kind of knew of him, but they had not heard him,” said Tim Phillips, AFP’s president, of the speech this month. “He blew people away.”

After tea party events on April 15 and in early September, Republican officials have sought to integrate the populist fervor on display into the GOP. That hasn’t always worked, said several movement leaders, primarily because the activists have not forgiven Republicans for profligate spending that took place while they were in control.

“While there’s deep concern and frustration and hostility to what the Democrat leadership is doing ... there is a wariness of both parties,” Phillips said. Activists “look at what the Republicans did when they had control earlier this decade, when they really just lost their way.”

Meanwhile, Pence, those activists say, is not among the ranks of Republicans who deserve scorn.

“With Republicans, quite frankly, there’s a lot of bandwagon people who are saying, ‘Hey, we’re with you now.’ I don’t feel that Pence is one of those,” said Ryan Rhodes, the chairman of the Iowa Tea Party Patriots. “I don’t think Pence is someone who’s lost our trust. He’s been aligned with the limited-government mentality that the tea party movement has been about.”

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But publicly, Pence’s advisers are not discussing a potential presidential run.

“We’ve heard the speculation,” said Matt Lloyd, the GOP conference’s communications director. Pence is “focused on electing Republicans in the 2010 election and serving his constituents in Indiana.”

If Pence does take his message to a national platform, he would face long odds from a historical perspective. James Garfield is the only member of the House to go directly to the presidency.

But the legions of failed presidential candidates includes House members who influenced the debate, like the late Reps. Mo Udall (D-Ariz.) and Jack Kemp (R-N.Y.), as well as less-well-known candidates like former Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.) and Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio).

But it’s not impossible, according to independent political analyst Rhodes Cook.

“I don’t think a House pedigree would be a significant disadvantage in 2012, given the wide-open nature of the current GOP presidential race and the absence of a clear heir apparent,” Cook said. “That should particularly be the case for a candidate like Pence, who could appeal to a large constituency within the party on the basis of the work he has already done.

“Pence is no little-known back-bencher,” Cook added.

The presidential buzz is getting noticed on Capitol Hill, where staffers who know Pence find the prospect of a national race farfetched.

House leadership aides complain that under Pence, the GOP conference has become little more than a personal promotional vehicle. And, they say, the tea party activists he may hope will carry him to victory will not be enough to beat better-established candidates.

But with those activists seeing him as a true believer, sniping on Capitol Hill may not have an impact. In fact, Pence is about to get another invitation to a rally in a key early state.

Rhodes, Iowa’s top tea partier, said he would invite Pence to an event in the Hawkeye State in the coming months. “I would be proud to have him as somebody considering” a presidential run, Rhodes said.