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On The Trail: Pence's knives come out

Vice President Pence has spent three decades in public life selling his brand of orthodox Republicanism through calm and reserved gentility. He is conservative, he likes to say, but he is not angry about it.

But Pence, who once wrote an essay forswearing negative campaign tactics, has always harbored a sharper edge, an attack dog who only occasionally bares his fangs. And as polls show Pence's boss trailing, the vice president has increasingly snapped at critics and even some erstwhile allies.

This past week, Pence lashed out at New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D), one of the harshest critics of the Trump administration's response to the coronavirus pandemic. In an appearance on Laura Ingraham's show on Fox News, Pence blamed Cuomo for some of the 32,000 New Yorkers who have died from COVID-19.

"Our hearts grieve for the fact that 1 in 5 of all American lives that have been lost in the coronavirus pandemic were lost in the state of New York," Pence said. "And some of that was because of poor decisions by the state and by Gov. Cuomo."

In an even more startling departure from the image he has cultivated, Pence targeted Chief Justice John Roberts - a fellow Hoosier - for criticism over majorities he had joined in cases going back to 2012, when Roberts wrote a majority opinion upholding the bulk of the 2010 Affordable Care Act.

"We have great respect for the institution of the Supreme Court of the United States, but Chief Justice Roberts has been a disappointment to conservatives," Pence told David Brody of the Christian Broadcasting Network on Wednesday.

Roberts recently angered conservatives with his ruling in a Louisiana abortion case and when he sided against a church in Nevada that wanted an exemption from coronavirus restrictions.

Interviews with seven people close to Pence throughout his long career in politics paint a portrait of a politician who weighs his words carefully, one who now sees his chance to play an important role in a campaign that is foundering - a role that could pay off for him four years down the road, when he would have his own chance to pursue the Oval Office.

"Mike Pence has always had the reputation he's just a genuinely nice guy," said former Rep. Marilyn Musgrave (R-Colo.), now vice president of government affairs at the anti-abortion group Susan B. Anthony List, who met with Pence this week in Florida. "He's the same Mike Pence that I met in 2002. He's done an incredible job as VP standing up for the sanctity of life. I think he's been a great influence on this president."

Pence's shot at Roberts is not unique within today's Republican Party, especially among those who have designs on a White House run four years from now. Both Sens. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) have criticized Roberts in recent days.

"The vice president has always stood up for conservative principles - and for conservatives. Justice Roberts has been a disappointment, particularly on issues of life," said Phil Cox, who ran the Republican Governors Association when Pence first ran for governor of Indiana.

Even as jockeying has begun to lead a post-Trump Republican Party, Pence's new edge comes just before he gets his own moments in the spotlight, first at this month's Republican convention - albeit virtually - and later as the co-star in a vice presidential debate against his soon-to-be-named Democratic rival.

"There's a realization that there are three months left until Nov. 3, and the vice president is leaning into the legacy of the first 3 ½ years of this administration," said Devin O'Malley, Pence's White House spokesman. "This is an administration that has a lot to be proud of in 3 ½ years."

Close observers say Pence has a long history of knifing opponents. After he wrote a 1991 essay called "Confessions of a Negative Campaigner," he made it clear he was admitting his faults - not apologizing to his rival, then-Rep. Phil Sharp (D-Ind.).

"He's been firing shots since he joined the Trump campaign and even well before then - he just doesn't spit and sputter when he aims the rhetorical gun," said Tom LoBianco, Washington correspondent at Business Insider and author of "Piety and Power: Mike Pence and the Taking of the White House."

"Pence's style has always been to avoid more colorful language and nasty personal attacks, but he's long built a career on political attacks, the same as just about every politician in the arena," LoBianco added.

Pence allies say his attacks and elevated profile serve a dual purpose: He can appease President Trump, who loves sharp elbows on television, while solidifying his stand with social conservatives, a critical pillar of the Republican electorate that will choose the next generation of party leaders.

Keeping himself in Trump's good graces will be pivotal to any presidential contender in the years to come. All will have to strike a delicate balance between appeasing Trump - as a lame duck if he wins or as the loudest voice on the sidelines if he loses - and staking out his or her own corner of the GOP.

"Placating Trump ensures he not only survives but continues building inroads with Trump's nationalist base, which is somewhat different from Pence's Christian fundamentalist base of support," LoBianco said.

Pence's relationship with that base is as solid as any prominent politician in the Republican Party, a fact that undergirded Trump's decision to choose Pence as his vice presidential nominee in 2016 in the first place.

"Those voters love Mike Pence," Musgrave said. "He's very comfortable in his skin talking about the life issue to conservatives around the country."

On The Trail is a reported column by Reid Wilson, primarily focused on the 2020 elections.

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