Mike Pence became the first former vice president in modern times to run against his old boss when he launched his presidential campaign in a video on Wednesday morning.
The former Trump administration official filed paperwork to run Monday and made a formal announcement in Iowa later on Wednesday.
"We can turn this country around, but different times call for different leadership," Pence said in the video. "Today our party and our country need a leader that will appeal, as Lincoln said, to the better angels of our nature."
Yes, that’s the same Mike Pence ridiculed by critics for his “appetite for obsequiousness” during the Trump administration.
Even Pence, when berated by Donald Trump in the final days of their administration for not having the courage to do his bidding one last time, reminded the president, “other than your family, no one in this administration has been more loyal to you than me.”
The demand that prompted Pence to break with Trump was, of course, Trump’s insistence that his No. 2 use his ceremonial role in presiding over the electoral count to overturn Joe Biden's 2020 win, a step Pence told him would have been unconstitutional.
But that leaves Pence in a difficult position to snatch the 2024 GOP nomination away from Trump. Republicans still loyal to Trump see Pence as a traitor. And those wanting to move on don’t think Pence’s big break erases four years of serving Trump.
“I think some people will reward him for showing the courage that he summoned on Jan. 6. There will be many that will strike him from the list,” said David Oman, a center-right Republican who co-chaired the Iowa Republican Party from 1985 to 1993. “He has perhaps a more narrow group of people to reach out to.”
Oman, who has not picked a favorite, said Pence’s challenge “is to stand up, stand out, as his own person.”
Resetting Pence's image
The chief task of a super PAC launched in May to support Pence is reintroducing him to the country.
“Our analysis is that voters know Mike Pence, they just don’t know him very well," said Scott Reed, the veteran GOP political consultant who managed Bob Dole’s 1996 presidential campaign and co-chairs the super PAC.
In his announcement video, Pence sought to reintroduce himself to voters as a former Indiana governor and congressman. The video's opening sequence also included a solo shot of Pence on Inauguration Day in 2017 and an image of him walking in the inaugural parade with his family. Trump was nowhere to be found.
Speaking at a rally on his 64th birthday Wednesday, Pence directly took on the “fair question” of why he is challenging his former running mate.
Pence said Trump disqualified himself for a second shot at the White House when he pushed his vice president to ignore the Constitution on Jan. 6.
"I believe that anyone who puts themselves over the Constitution should never be president of the United States,” he said. “And anyone who asks someone else to put them over the Constitution should never be president of the United States again.”
Pence also accused Trump of abandoning the conservative principles on abortion and other issues that he said guided their administration.
“When Donald Trump ran for president in 2016, he promised to govern as a conservative, and together we did just that,” Pence said. “Today, he makes no such promise.”
`Midwestern Reagan Republican'
Resetting Pence’s image requires some time travel back to the president who had been Pence’s political hero before he teamed up with Trump.
Introducing Pence at the Iowa State Fairgrounds during her annual “Roast and Ride” fundraiser Saturday, Iowa Sen. Joni Ernst called him a “Midwestern Reagan Republican.”
Pence has not only tried to emulate Reagan’s sunny optimism, but he espouses the same “three-legged stool” rubric of uniting social, fiscal and defense conservatives.
The first leg, social conservatism, should be a top selling point for the man who has long described himself as a “Christian, a conservative and a Republican, in that order.”
Vying for Christian conservatives
Pence chose to launch his campaign not in his home state but in Iowa, the first state on the primary election calendar for Republicans and where Pence has already been a frequent visitor. Up to half of likely caucusgoers are self-identified evangelical Christians, the super PAC supporting Pence found.
But a March Des Moines Register Iowa Poll found 58% of evangelicals had a positive view of Trump, the same share with a favorable opinion of Pence.
Christian conservatives like Trump for what he did as president on issues they care about, said Bob Vander Plaats, an influential leader of Iowa’s Christian right. And they like Pence because “of the person that he is” – someone who has been fighting for “the sanctity of life” throughout his political career, Vander Plaats continued.
Plus, Trump and Pence aren’t the only contenders wooing Christian conservatives.
“There’s a lot of people that are going to be vying for that lane,” Vander Plaats said. “That’s why we say you’ve got to let the caucuses play out.”
Speaking 'hard truths'
On defense and fiscal conservatism, Pence may be rowing against the party’s populist tide.
Despite the growing share of Republicans who say the U.S. is providing too much aid to Ukraine, Pence gives full-throated support to Ukraine’s battle against Russia’s invasion.
Criticizing Trump for calling Russian President Vladimir Putin a genius, Pence said: "I know the difference between a genius and a war criminal."
And while Trump has warned congressional Republicans to stay away from Social Security and Medicare in any attempt to tame the budget deficit, Pence says the popular programs are driving the projected increase in the national debt that could reach a record high by 2033.
“We’ve got to speak hard truths,” Pence told Iowans Saturday, speaking in front of a stack of hay bales after helping lead a pack of more than 200 motorcyclists to the Fairgrounds for plates of sliced pork sandwiches. “I believe we have to resist the politics of personality and the siren song of populism unmoored to timeless conservative principles.”
He called Iowa “the place that we shape principled conservative leadership.”
Trump was 'wrong' about Jan. 6
Principled conservatism is also how Pence frames his decision to defy Trump, as taking the only path available to someone who reveres the Constitution.
Their split has grown wider since the days after the attack on the Capitol when Pence told Trump they would “just have to disagree on two things” – Jan. 6 and that Pence will never stop praying for Trump.
By the time Pence published his memoir last fall, however, he wrote that he “decided it would be best to go our separate ways” after Trump continued to condemn Pence for – in Trump’s view – not having had “the courage to act.”
Pence has gotten more direct in calling Trump “wrong” for asserting he could overturn the election.
“And his reckless words endangered my family and everyone at the Capitol that day,” Pence said in March at the annual white-tie Gridiron Dinner attended by politicians and journalists. “I know that history will hold Donald Trump accountable.”
No vice presidential springboard
Pence’s bid for the 2024 nomination against Trump is making its own history, according to vice presidential scholar Joel Goldstein, who wrote last month about Pence being the first former vice president in modern times to run against the president under whom he served.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s first vice president, John Nance Garner, ran against him for a third term but both were in office at the time.
“What’s unusual here,” Goldstein told USA TODAY, “is defeated presidents don’t run again.”
Even running mates who failed to make it to the White House rarely oppose each other in later cycles, he notes.
That fact, combined with the fallout from Jan. 6, means Pence “hasn’t gotten the oomph” that the springboard of vice presidency can provide to a presidential hopeful.
“If you’re thinking about uniting the party, he doesn’t seem like the person who would do it, notwithstanding the fact that for three years and 50 weeks, he was an incredibly loyal vice president and his perceived disloyalty extended basically to following the Constitution and the law,” Goldstein said.
Low support in the polls
Pence hasn’t broken out of the single-digits as a top-of-mind preference for GOP voters since the Monmouth University Polling Institute started asking late last year whom Republicans would like to see as their nominee.
A lot of Republicans have a pretty firm opinion of Pence, said Patrick Murray, director of the polling institute. And about one-third of the electorate – the firm Trump supporters − has already written him off.
“That’s the problem for Mike Pence,” Murray said. “It’s not like he stands out as owning a clear portion of the Republican electorate who says that 'He’s our guy.’”
Similarly, an anti-Trump Republican group that regularly holds focus groups of GOP voters has found no appetite for a Pence candidacy, said Gunner Ramer, political director of the Republican Accountability PAC.
Many primary voters consider Pence a good guy, but “too nice” for them, according to Ramer. They want a pugilist, and they don’t want anyone that reminds them of the GOP establishment. That’s why their clear alternative to Trump is Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, he said.
“What a Mike Pence campaign looks like is something that maybe would have played 15 to 20 years ago,” Ramer said, “but not in the modern-day Republican Party that has fundamentally changed since Trump took over.”
Pence is betting that’s not the case, arguing Wednesday that voters are looking for a return to civility.
"We need leaders who can distinguish between starting fights and finishing them,” Pence said, “between the politics of outrage and standing firm."
Oman, the former Iowa GOP co-chair, said there’s still an opening for someone besides Trump or DeSantis to emerge before next year’s caucuses.
“There’s ample time for someone to introduce or, in Pence’s case, reintroduce himself, to Iowa voters,” Oman said, “and make his case.”
Contributing: Francesca Chambers
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Mike Pence breaks with Trump in launching presidential campaign