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Pence to step into spotlight for Trump

Vice President Pence has spent the past four years as the dutiful sidekick to a mercurial and controversial president, but this week he will step into the spotlight at a critical moment for the Trump campaign.

Pence will address the Republican National Convention from Fort McHenry in Baltimore on Wednesday night. The theme of the evening is “Land of Heroes,” with the vice president likely to pay homage to front-line workers and the country's history, the latter a nod to the campaign's messaging that a Democratic win would fundamentally change the country.

Those close to the campaign acknowledge that Pence does not excite voters in the same way Trump does, or the way Sen. Kamala HarrisKamala HarrisHarris, Hispanic Caucus meet on Central America Harris headlining Asian American Democratic PAC's summit Here's why Joe Biden polls well, but Kamala Harris does not MORE (D-Calif.) may invigorate the Biden campaign. His low-key nature has fueled recurring speculation through Trump’s first term that he may ditch Pence for a different running mate.

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But as the Republican convention approaches, Trump has made his fondness for Pence clear in public, those close to the campaign overwhelmingly back the vice president, and the former Indiana governor has emerged once again as a key player if the two are to win a second term.

“While a visit from President TrumpDonald TrumpGOP-led Maricopa County board decries election recount a 'sham' Analysis: Arpaio immigration patrol lawsuit to cost Arizona county at least 2 million Conservatives launch 'anti-cancel culture' advocacy organization MORE can dominate coverage for days, Vice President Pence’s more tactical and surgical approach is incredibly helpful for us politically, as he can travel from state to state addressing specific issues or coalitions,” said Nick Trainer, director of battleground strategy for the Trump campaign.

In the past few weeks, Pence addressed a “Farmers and Ranchers for Trump” event in Iowa, “Cops for Trump” and “Latter-day Saints for Trump” gatherings in Arizona and delivered an economic address in Wisconsin. A previously scheduled trip to Florida to reach out to Latino voters was postponed.

The range of events reflects how Pence can be deployed to deliver a targeted message to key demographics that the campaign is relying on in November. His extensive travel leads to positive local news coverage, without the controversy or off-script moments that Trump tends to bring.

But Pence rarely makes news, stays rigidly on message and has a tendency to be overshadowed by Trump. The result is that he does not generate the same enthusiasm among voters as the president.

“Mike is on the B-team, and he knows it,” said one outside adviser to the president who requested anonymity to speak candidly. “He’s a great utility player. But he doesn’t instill the same type of fan-base voter enthusiasm that the president does.”

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A recent Morning Consult-Politico poll found 38 percent of polled registered voters have a favorable view of Pence, while 50 percent hold an unfavorable view. By comparison, Trump has a 39 percent favorable rating and a 57 percent unfavorable rating in the same poll.

Pence's standing in the White House and on the GOP ticket has been the subject of recurring rumors throughout Trump’s first term, with speculation that the president may opt for a new running mate bubbling up periodically.

Chatter picked up when former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki HaleyNikki HaleyCoalition of human rights groups calling for boycott of Beijing Olympics Trump critics push new direction for GOP Pollster Frank Luntz: 'I would bet on' Trump being 2024 GOP nominee MORE left the administration and effusively praised the president that she may be eyed for the vice presidential slot in 2020. Haley’s backers argued that adding an Indian American woman to the GOP ticket would broaden Trump’s appeal.

Those same arguments made the rounds this month when Biden picked Harris, whose parents hailed from India and Jamaica, to be his running mate.

But Trump, who has turned on numerous aides after they left the administration, has returned Pence’s loyalty in kind, and White House and campaign officials were quick to dismiss talk of replacing Pence as nonsense.

“These rumors are never anything more than fever dreams from Democrats and their mainstream media allies who are constantly rooting for chaos,” said Trainer, who worked alongside both men in the White House before joining the campaign. “President Trump and Vice President Pence have a deep respect for one another and their shared commitment to delivering on their America First agenda for the American people. President Trump knows Vice President Pence has always been — and will always be — his best ally.”

A White House official pointed to 13 separate instances since March where Trump has praised Pence by name, and the president has on multiple occasions denied he is looking to pick a new running mate.

“Do we love our vice president? I'll tell you, I watched Kamala last night, and I said, ‘I'll take Mike. I'll take Mike, by a lot,’ ” Trump said during a Pennsylvania campaign event Thursday. “He's been a great vice president, actually.”

One senior campaign official acknowledged that Trump and Pence make for an “odd couple.” But it’s a pairing that benefits both men.

Trump found a loyal running mate who appeals to evangelicals and Republicans who were skeptical of the president’s conservative credentials.

Pence, who faced a difficult reelection bid in 2016, is now the second highest-ranking official in government and is considered a front-runner for the party’s 2024 presidential nomination should Trump win in November.

Pence has elevated his profile further since the beginning of the year, becoming a constant presence on the campaign trail and establishing himself as the leader of the federal response to the coronavirus pandemic.

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The latter could open Pence up for scrutiny in the vice presidential debate and on the campaign trail. The Trump administration’s handling of the virus has been widely panned, particularly Trump’s mixed messaging and early downplaying of its severity. The U.S. leads the world with more than 170,000 reported deaths and roughly 6 million infections.

Campaign officials downplayed the idea that Pence’s leadership role on the pandemic would be a liability. One senior official said the vice president could play up the administration’s mobilization to distribute protective equipment and ramp up testing.

Pence has countered Trump’s detached and at times dismissive response to the pandemic by offering sympathy and an acknowledgment of the seriousness of the situation. The vice president leads weekly calls with governors to discuss the virus, and while some at times grow frustrated with the administration’s overall approach, sources familiar with the calls say Pence is generally a reliable partner.

“If the fight is on what this administration has done on coronavirus, if that’s the fight we’re going to have [until Election Day] then Mike PenceMichael (Mike) Richard PenceBiden, Harris release 2020 tax returns Trump signals he's ready to get back in the game Simon & Schuster CEO Jonathan Karp defends Pence book deal: report MORE is the best spokesman for this administration,” the senior campaign official said.