Pence earns GOP raves in first month as Trump VP

Pence earns GOP raves in first month as Trump VP
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He has comforted a weeping boy, defended the Gold Star Khan family and praised New Mexico’s Hispanic-American governor who backs immigration reform.

No, it’s not Ohio Gov. John Kasich. It’s Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump suggests some states may 'pay nothing' as part of unemployment plan Trump denies White House asked about adding him to Mount Rushmore Trump, US face pivotal UN vote on Iran MORE’s running mate, Mike PenceMichael (Mike) Richard PenceOn The Trail: Pence's knives come out Pence: Chief Justice Roberts 'has been a disappointment to conservatives' Students at school system Pence called 'forefront' of reopening now in quarantine MORE.

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The Republican Indiana governor and former congressman has been projecting a kinder, gentler Republican Party as he’s hopscotched across the country during his first month as the vice presidential nominee.

His brand of compassionate conservatism is a stark contrast to Trump's combative and often highly offensive style, helping to soften the image of the brash GOP presidential nominee and appeal to the establishment wing of the party, which has been completely put off by Trump.

Even if the Trump/Pence ticket goes down in flames this fall, the governor’s allies say he'll have no problem picking up the pieces and positioning himself for either a 2018 Senate race or a 2020 White House bid of his own. He’ll have a newfound national profile, and Pence has essentially been running a positive campaign that looks and feels nothing like that of the beleaguered GOP standard-bearer.

“I think there is another race in him. Obviously, he’s young and talented, and there’s the way he’s conducted himself on the trail,” Sen. Jeff FlakeJeffrey (Jeff) Lane FlakeCheney clashes with Trump Sessions-Tuberville Senate runoff heats up in Alabama GOP lawmakers stick to Trump amid new criticism MORE (R-Ariz.), a vocal Trump critic who’s also one of Pence’s closest friends, told The Hill in a phone interview Friday.

“He’s loyal to the ticket, but people have seen the kind of man he is. That will stick with him. That will stick with the voters, too.”

Pence has, at times, found himself stamping out Trump’s fires, correcting or clarifying for the Manhattan billionaire controversies that have threatened to blow the campaign off course.

The Hoosier State governor argued that Trump’s “Second Amendment people” remarks were merely meant to call attention to Democratic nominee Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonHillary Clinton labels Trump coronavirus executive actions a 'stunt' What Trump got wrong by pushing coal Trump is fighting the wrong war MORE’s desire to scale back gun rights, not a call to violence. And Pence endorsed Speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanWary GOP eyes Meadows shift from brick-thrower to dealmaker Budowsky: Why I back Kennedy, praise Markey Democratic super PAC quotes Reagan in anti-Trump ad set to air on Fox News: 'Are you better off?' MORE (R-Wis.) and Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainBill Maher delivers mock eulogy for Trump Hillary Clinton roasts NYT's Maureen Dowd over column CNN's Ana Navarro to host Biden roundtable on making 'Trump a one-term president' MORE (R-Ariz.) in their primary races as Trump waffled for days.

More recently, Pence sought to diffuse speculation, fanned by Trump, that the election would be illegally stolen from Republicans. When a New Hampshire woman asked this week about the prospect of a “rigged” election, Pence praised voter ID laws and encouraged voters to volunteer as poll watchers, but he didn’t utter the word “rigged.”

“The truth of the matter is, you are the greatest vanguard for integrity in voting in New Hampshire,” Pence told the woman at a rally in Manchester.

Republicans also have marveled over Pence’s political agility and instincts on the stump. He’s faced several high-stakes moments that could have ended poorly but instead showcased his softer side and human touch.

At a town hall in Lancaster, Pa., earlier this month, Pence stepped off the stage to comfort and embrace a boy whose father is terminally ill and had urged the candidate to help pass a bill to allow experimental drug treatment.

It was an emotional moment that observers said was reminiscent of the time Kasich, a former presidential rival of Trump's, hugged a young man who choked up after sharing a story of his personal struggles at a town hall in South Carolina.

“Some people might need training for that, but with Mike, it comes from a natural human empathy,” said one well-connected Indiana Republican who is not authorized to discuss the presidential race on the record. “He immediately knew the right thing to do was to walk off stage and give that young man a hug. No strategist or consultant had to tell him to do that.”

At another rally, Pence, the father of a Marine, sought to diffuse Trump’s feud with the Muslim Khan family, praising their late son, an Army captain who died in Iraq, as “an American hero” and saying the Khans, “like all Gold Star families, should be cherished by every American.” 

When the crowd booed an Air Force mom for criticizing Trump’s treatment of the Khans, Pence quickly defended her: “Folks, that's what freedom looks like, and that's what freedom sounds like,” he said in Carson City, Nev.

The boos continued this week at a rally in Albuquerque, N.M., after Pence praised Gov. Susana Martinez, who has refused to endorse Trump. Pence called the Republican Hispanic-American governor a “dear, dear, dear friend of mine” and a ”great governor” who’s done a “great job for New Mexico.” 

For some Republicans, Pence’s presence in the campaign has made the GOP ticket much more palatable. Unlike Trump, Pence is a policy expert, has relationships on Capitol Hill, has a traditional family life and is almost universally admired by social conservatives.

State Sen. Jim Banks (R-Ind.), who has worked with Pence in Indianapolis and is expected to win a seat in the House this November, is a big Pence booster but conceded he’s “far less enthusiastic about the top of the ticket.”

“I wish Mike Pence was leading the ticket, because he’s the type of leader America needs at this point in history.”

Pence’s closest friends say his compassionate conservatism is inspired by former President George W. Bush, who fought for comprehensive immigration reform and AIDS relief in Africa. Pence, who arrived in Washington at the start of Bush’s administration, has closely studied the 43rd president and sometimes imitates him for fun.

“He does a killer impression,” said the Indiana Republican source.

Republicans interviewed by The Hill aren’t quite ready to concede that the GOP ticket is headed for a landslide loss in the fall. But if that happens, they insist Pence won’t be tarnished by the experience.

“I think it’s going to be close,” said GOP strategist Keith Appell. “But regardless, if Mike Pence continues to acquit himself the way he has, no matter the outcome, he will be a top-tier player in the conservative movement and the Republican Party and someone I think can have appeal across the aisle.”

“Mike is focused on winning now, not later. I don't think he is spending any time focused on his own future aspirations,” added House GOP Policy Chairman Luke Messer (R-Ind.), who lost to Pence in a 2000 House primary and later succeeded him in Congress.

But Messer added that this campaign experience would only help a future presidential bid. “He is developing a far larger national exposure, far larger national fundraising base, and maybe most importantly, he is showing that the national stage is not too big for him.”

Pence, 57 and a father of three, never was vindictive. He later endorsed Messer in a state legislative race in 2003, and Pence and his wife, Karen, counseled the Messers as they transitioned to Congress a decade later. “I would call him a mentor,” Messer said.

Other former House GOP colleagues shared similar stories of Pence’s personal touches. One of the chamber’s most conservative members, Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), said Pence helped convince colleagues to elect Jordan as chairman of the Republican Study Committee, a post Pence had held several terms earlier. That’s something Jordan hasn’t forgotten.

The two huddled last week in the Dayton, Ohio, airport after Pence held a rally nearby. Despite sagging poll numbers, Pence was upbeat. “Like Reagan, he was very optimistic,” Jordan said. “He said, ‘We are going to take our case to the American people, and we think we can win.’ ”

Flake, who famously clashed with Trump during a meeting with GOP senators last month, said his vice presidential running mate can be generous. And funny.

Years ago, Flake was disappointed he would be apart from his wife, Cheryl, on their 20th anniversary. She wanted to surprise her husband in D.C., so she recruited Pence to help hatch a plan. That night, Pence begged Flake to speak to a group of Indiana donors at the Hotel Washington, just steps from the White House.

“Of course, there were no donors there, but Pence said, ‘That’s a good-looking girl in the corner there. Do you want to go talk to her?’ And there was Cheryl,” Flake recalled. “He is a good friend, a caring guy, and that comes out. You see it in the campaign.

“His campaign is an extension of who he is: a serious policy guy who is just a good man.”