Pence solidifies role as Trump soldier

Vice President Pence is boosting his profile and solidifying his standing as President TrumpDonald TrumpTrump hails Arizona Senate for audit at Phoenix rally, slams governor Arkansas governor says it's 'disappointing' vaccinations have become 'political' Watch live: Trump attends rally in Phoenix MORE's second-in-command as election season kicks into high gear.

The vice president has had a heavy travel schedule in recent weeks, visiting key swing states to meet with voters, fundraise and speak at campaign events. Pence’s administrative portfolio expanded this week when Trump tasked him with overseeing the federal response to coronavirus, a role some Democrats suggested he was ill-equipped to handle. 

His increased exposure comes with some risk should the coronavirus become a full-blown crisis in the U.S. But it has also given Pence additional responsibilities and visibility as he reinforces his role as the president's right-hand man and positions himself for a potential presidential campaign in 2024.

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As recently as last fall, chatter permeated the Beltway about whether Trump might replace Pence on the Republican ticket in 2020 with someone like former Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki HaleyNikki HaleyNoem to travel to South Carolina for early voting event Poll: Trump leads 2024 GOP primary trailed by Pence, DeSantis Trump is a complication for Republican hopes in Virginia MORE to broaden his appeal to women and moderate voters.

Haley sought to tamp down those rumors by praising Pence, and White House and campaign officials rallied around the vice president.

Trump has repeatedly shot down talk of replacing the vice president, saying as recently as November that Pence is “our man 100 percent.”

“If he’s trailing in the polls this summer we should expect those rumors to resurface simply because Trump is really unconventional and really unpredictable,” said Alex Conant, a GOP strategist who worked on Sen. Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioBipartisan congressional commission urges IOC to postpone, relocate Beijing Games Hillicon Valley: Democrats introduce bill to hold platforms accountable for misinformation during health crises | Website outages hit Olympics, Amazon and major banks Senators introduce bipartisan bill to secure critical groups against hackers MORE's (R-Fla.) 2016 campaign.

“That said, Trump has shown time and time again that he trusts Mike PenceMichael (Mike) Richard PencePoll: 73 percent of Democratic voters would consider voting for Biden in the 2024 primary Bipartisan congressional commission urges IOC to postpone, relocate Beijing Games Noem to travel to South Carolina for early voting event MORE,” he continued. “There’s not a lot of daylight between Trump and Pence, which makes it hard to believe he’s likely to be replaced.”

Pence and Trump have been seen as an odd couple since they first ran on the same ticket nearly four years ago.

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Since taking office, Pence has served to balance out the president in many ways. He offers years of government experience and time in the conservative movement where Trump has little. He chooses his words carefully where Trump often goes off script. And Pence brings a personal touch on the campaign trail where Trump prefers the adulation of massive rally crowds.

The latter was on full display this week in Michigan, where Pence stopped at the Fleetwood Diner in Lansing to spend 30 minutes mingling with patrons before delivering remarks at two events around the state.

Pence casually chatted up patrons as they wished him well and posed for photos. When a father asked Pence to sit for a photo with his teenage son, the vice president slid into the booth and mentioned that his daughter was recently married.

“You should have seen Vice President Pence work that crowd,” Agriculture Secretary Sonny PerdueSonny PerdueOVERNIGHT ENERGY: Supreme Court rules that pipeline can seize land from New Jersey | Study: EPA underestimated methane emissions from oil and gas development | Kevin McCarthy sets up task forces on climate, other issues The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Georgia election day is finally here; Trump hopes Pence 'comes through for us' to overturn results Civil war between MAGA, GOP establishment could hand Dems total control MORE told attendees at a Michigan Farm Bureau event an hour later. “I mean it was amazing. Just a people’s person out there.”

While Pence has served as a loyal campaign surrogate — making stops in Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Florida in recent weeks alone — he has largely taken a backseat publicly to Trump and more outspoken officials on domestic matters.

That changed this week when Trump tasked Pence with leading the federal government's response to the coronavirus after days of bipartisan criticism and skepticism about whether the administration was prepared for a possible outbreak.

The responsibility was well received by Republicans who viewed Pence as a competent and accountable leader with a familiarity of how the government works. But Democrats and some public health officials were less enthused, decrying his response to an HIV outbreak in Indiana while he was governor and past votes to cut public health funding.

The added responsibility is a high-risk, high-reward prospect politically for Pence.

“If Pence is seen as having run a competent government response, obviously that would be something he’d talk about in 2024,” Conant said. “Whereas if he somehow botched it or was blamed for it, that would be a significant problem not just for a potential 2024 campaign, but even for the 2020 campaign.”

Pence is viewed as a natural candidate to lead the GOP ticket in 2024 given his role as vice president in the current administration. He has not weighed in publicly on the prospect, and those close to the vice president say he has not made any decisions or ruled anything out.

He received a warm welcome during his appearance at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Maryland this week, where he delivered his standard stump speech advocating for the Trump administration and piled on a few extra digs at socialism.

Matt Schlapp, president of the American Conservative Union, praised Pence's bonafides in introducing the vice president. 

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“By a Hoosier country mile, he’s the most conservative vice president candidate and vice president we’ve ever had,” Schlapp said.

The 2024 GOP primary is likely to boil down in part to which candidate is able to tie themselves most closely to Trump to win over his base. Pence's efforts to entrench himself as one of the president’s most trusted allies could give him a leg up on a field that might include the likes of Secretary of State Mike PompeoMike PompeoNoem to travel to South Carolina for early voting event Poll: Trump leads 2024 GOP primary trailed by Pence, DeSantis Pence v. Biden on China: Competing but consistent visions MORE and Haley.

“Pence is doing everything you would expect a vice president who wants the top job someday to be doing,” Conant said. “The most important thing is getting reelected, which Pence is obviously doing everything he can to help that effort. And the second thing is being a good vice president.”