COLUMBIA, S.C. – As Mike Pence discussed his tenure as vice president with about 500 religious Republicans, some listeners couldn't help but wonder if they were seeing a preview of coming attractions.
“I said to my husband, ‘Did you think this was a trial run for a campaign speech?’” said Beth Atwater, an attorney from Lexington, South Carolina, who attended Pence's speech before the Palmetto Family Council last week.
Republicans across the country are pondering Pence's chances of becoming president – thanks in part to the man who remains at the heart of GOP politics and made Pence vice president: Donald Trump.
Trump and some allies criticize Pence for refusing Trump's demands that he help overturn his election loss of Joe Biden. The insurrection by pro-Trump rioters Jan. 6 at the U.S. Capitol put Pence's life in danger.
Republicans who want the party to move on from Trump see the former vice president as part of the problem – a loyalist who too often enabled the president.
Pence hasn't said he's running for president, but he raised eyebrows with his reemergence in public in South Carolina, home of a key GOP primary in 2024. He has a lineup of events in the coming months that looks like an attempt to appeal to Trump voters without alienating their leader.
Building a base for a presidential run is always challenging, Republicans said, but Pence's predicament is unique.
"I just don't see the path," said Denver Riggleman, a former GOP congressman from Virginia and an outspoken critic of Trump.
Making the moves
Pence is one of several Republicans making the kind of moves one does when exploring a presidential run.
The former vice president has created a political committee, Advancing American Freedom, to promote and defend the policies of the Trump-Pence administration. It has run web ads featuring Pence on issues such as border security.
Young America's Foundation, a conservative group, announced that Pence will give the keynote address at its National Conservative Student Conference in August in Houston. Pence plans to campaign for Republican candidates in the 2022 congressional races.
The former vice president is writing an autobiography scheduled to be published in 2023, a year before the presidential election.
In deciding where to make his first first speech since leaving office, Pence picked South Carolina – home of the first-in-the-South primary that has been pivotal in Republican nomination battles.
Friday, Pence will attend an early cattle call of eight potential Republican candidates not named Trump. Texas Republicans organized a private meeting of donors to hear from Pence, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and U.S. Sens. Tom Cotton, Marco Rubio, Tim Scott and Rick Scott.
Sarah Longwell, a GOP strategist who ran a group called Republican Voters Against Trump in 2020, said Pence's challenges in a 2024 race are many.
"No. 1, Trump is going to attack him as insufficiently loyal," she said, and Trump voters who believe the election was stolen will blame Pence.
Republicans who want to shed Trump see Pence as complicit in the administration's actions, including the drawn-out protests of the election.
Longwell said, "People who love Trump don't like him, and people who hate Trump don't like him."
'A Christian, a Conservative, a Republican – in that order'
During his half-hour speech in a downtown Columbia ballroom last week, Pence said that serving alongside Trump was "the greatest honor of my life," though he didn't mention the ex-president's name that much. He spoke more about the administration's record and criticized the Biden administration over immigration, spending, taxes, abortion and religious freedom.
In his opening, Pence recited a standard self-description: "I'm a Christian, a conservative and a Republican – in that order."
Though vice presidents often find it hard to emerge from the shadow of the presidents they served, the job has become a stepping stone toward the Oval Office. Richard Nixon, George H.W. Bush and Joe Biden were elected to the presidency as former vice presidents. Hubert Humphrey (1968), Walter Mondale (1984) and Al Gore (2000) won the Democratic nominations but fell short in the general elections.
None of those former veeps faced the kind of obstacle within their own party that Pence has in Trump.
Pence has to answer one question first: Will he run if Trump does? The former president said he is considering another race in 2024 but won't make an announcement until after the 2022 congressional races.
Normally, a former vice president would be in "the top spot" for the next election, but "in a Trump GOP, it is more complicated," said Mike DuHaime, former political director for the Republican National Committee.
Despite Pence's "fealty over the four years," DuHaime said, "Trump may have forever damaged (Pence's) reputation with Trump supporters by calling him out during the election lie and the Capitol riot on Jan. 6."
Pence, who frequently talks about his religious faith, does have support from at least one important Republican constituency: evangelical voters such as the ones who saw him speak at the Palmetto Family Council.
Tim Miller, a former Republican political strategist who saw Pence in Columbia, said he has "a base of support with evangelicals, which is better than most have, but can he expand out of that?"
Members of Trump's "Make America Great Again" caucus may remain suspicious.
"Hard to imagine the MAGA voters are ever going to love him," Miller said.
'He did the right thing ... And it's going to cost him'
One of Pence's biggest hurdles to a potential run isn't just his association with Trump but Trump's own criticisms of him.
At a Republican donor conference last month at his Mar-a-Lago estate in Palm Beach, Florida, Trump said he was still "disappointed" that Pence did not move to block the counting of electoral votes from states that went for Biden.
In a statement this week attacking Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., Trump said the election result would have been different "had Mike Pence referred the information on six states (only need two) back to State Legislatures."
Trump denounced his vice president at a rally Jan. 6 that preceded the insurrection at the Capitol, where some Trump supporters roamed the halls looking for Pence and calling him a traitor.
Riggleman, the former congressman from Virginia, said he has seen Trump-Pence yard signs in his district with the vice president's name painted over or otherwise vandalized.
He said he likes Pence and believes the vice president acted honorably in refusing to interfere Jan. 6 when Congress met to confirm Biden's victory. "He did the right thing for the country that day," Riggleman said. "And it's going to cost him."
One thing potentially working in Pence's favor: Few people are paying attention to the Republican presidential race.
Jenny Beth Martin, honorary chairman of Tea Party Patriots Action, said reporters and political activists are interested in the early jockeying, but most Americans are worried and frustrated about things such as reviving the economy and re-opening schools once the COVID-19 pandemic is under control.
When the time for attention comes, she said, "the grassroots would want to know first and foremost whether Trump is going to want to run."
'A long time away'
At the Columbia Convention Center, South Carolina Republicans said they believe compatriots in their state and elsewhere – places such as Iowa and New Hampshire – will judge Pence on his merits. They are intrigued by how Pence might navigate the issue of Trump.
Kelly Ross, who works for a nonprofit company in Greenville, said Pence's base of voters is different from Trump's, and the election "is a long time away" in any event.
Others said the Pence-Trump dispute over Jan. 6 will mean little to Republicans in 2024.
"I think people forget things and get over them and move on to what's best for the country," said Cathy Wells, a housewife from Lexington.
In short, many said, they'll wait and see.
"It's kind of hard to tell," said Atwater, the attorney from Lexington. "You know, politics changes so quickly."
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Is Pence running for president? He'll have to contend with Trump.