Mike Pence tests his 2024 location in Georgia

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KENNESAW, Ga.—Sometimes it’s easy to forget just how effective Mike Pence can be when he’s focused on a political enemy.

The former vice president joined Gov. Brian Kemp for a rally in suburban northern Atlanta on Monday, where Kemp’s bid for a renomination against David Perdue became a headline race in Tuesday’s Georgia primaries. As Pence worked the crowd, effectively leveling a clear critique of expected Democratic nominee Stacey Abrams while talking about both Kemp’s accomplishments and some of his own, he also reminded fellow Republicans that his skills as a salesman remained formidable if he chose to make another run for the office.

Warning of the “radical left wing” which he says wants to encroach on traditional values ​​and indoctrinate students as racists, Pence hit all of the conservative movement’s greatest hits: abortion, prayer and the awakening. “The Biden-Harris administration has unleashed a tidal wave of left-leaning politics, eroded our standing in the world, and stifled our economy,” Pence said, testing what sounded very much like campaign rhetoric for his own return to power. . “Frankly, the Democrats have moved so fast, sometimes I don’t think the left hand knows what the far left hand is doing.”

And, despite his own well-documented disagreements with former President Donald Trump, Pence was more than eager to wrap himself in the four years of the Trump-Pence administration, which many Republicans consider an absolute success. “In 48 short months, we have achieved the lowest unemployment rate, the highest household income, the highest energy production, the most pro-American trade agreements, the most secure border and the most powerful army the world has ever seen,” Pence said. “We did that.”

If that sounds like the words of a White House candidate — not someone just brought in by a buddy for an eleventh-hour “atta-boy” — it’s no coincidence. Pence is clearly considering his next steps in politics. His political operation has never really stopped, and some of his longtime aides are still on their toes as he travels across the country seeking to bolster strategic allies like Kemp, a popular governor in a field state. unexpected battle. Not one to trust his gut, Pence’s performance in Georgia on Monday night suggests he expects to be able to take credit for Kemp’s expected victory on Tuesday — and earn a token for later.

It’s just an added bonus that Trump has backed Kemp’s challenger.

As ambitious and shrewd as anyone in his party, Pence took a calculated risk in 2016 to accept then-candidate Trump’s invitation to join forces against Hillary Clinton. Although they are politically opposed – Pence, a staunch Christian conservative from Trump’s thrice-married adulterous casino operator – the match worked for voters, at least in 2016. And although their tenure in the White House has resulted in many awkward moments and an abundance of compromise from the vice president, Pence nonetheless kept his word to serve the pleasure, even remaining silent on January 6, 2021 as Trump launched a raging mob towards the US Capitol in an unsuccessful effort. to pressure Pence and others to overturn the 2020 election results.

Trump has given indications that he intends to seek a rematch against President Joe Biden in two years. It froze much of the Republican field, but not all of it. For Pence — and others like him who face 2024 with uncertainty about Trump’s plans and his political power — the work toward the nomination has already begun.

Most presidential campaigns begin years before anyone officially pulls the trigger. For example, governors. Nebraska’s Pete Ricketts and Arizona’s Doug Ducey, along with former Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey, have traveled to Georgia in recent weeks to support Kemp. And former Gov. Nikki Haley of South Carolina, former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida also road-tested messages for potential deals. , and South Carolina.

Pence, by virtue of having been on a national ballot twice before and sporting a Rolodex built during a political career that included stints as a congressman and governor of Indiana, starts as a premier candidate plan. But among the MAGA crowd, doubts remain. Although he is as conservative as can be, he is also a man who plays by the rules. And despite Trump urging him to try to get Congress to ignore the 2020 election results, Pence followed the law as he understood it on January 6, even as a violent horde descended on the Capitol.

“He did a good job of balancing his morals with the needs of the role with Trump, but I think a lot of things about the election are crazy,” says Michael Bova, a 63-year-old retired civilian Defense employee. . Department of Hampton, Ga., who was among those in attendance Monday night to hear from the Georgia governor and former vice president.

Bova went to high school with Pence in Indiana and always harangued him about attending the upcoming class reunion. He was proud of his former friend’s success while sympathizing with his current political situation. “As loyal as Pence was, he didn’t deserve what happened,” Bova said. “He didn’t have the power to change the results. He would have done it if he could.

But among the voters in the crowd here in Kennesaw, there still wasn’t a ton of clamor for Pence to enter the race. It wasn’t necessarily because of their overwhelming love for Trump, but rather a sense of weariness with the whole era.

“I don’t think it’s good for Kemp to campaign with Pence. He just reminds us how divided the Republican Party is here, at a time when we can’t afford to be,” says Ryan Covan , a 22-year-old psychology student at nearby Kennesaw State University and a former campaign agent for both Republicans years ago, “Pence has some nerve to be here with Kemp. He should never show his face.”

When asked if Pence, a former conservative radio host, should consider a race in 2024, there was no hesitation from Covan: “Absolutely not.”

That was also the sentiment of 78-year-old Elva Dornbusch, a retired Kennesaw government hand who would prefer DeSantis as a candidate. “Pence definitely shouldn’t be running.”

But Pence was widely seen as a top contender in that crowd, even among Pence skeptics. “The vice president is not Georgia. Brian Kemp is Georgia. But to be fair, Pence and DeSantis would be the favorites in 2024,” says Jay Neal, a 58-year-old public servant who traveled more than an hour from Chickamauga. What about Trump? “I hope he doesn’t run away. He is too divisive.

Pence, who ran his campaigns from the ledger and not from the heart, wouldn’t enter a race if he couldn’t win. Where Trump ran on his guts, Pence’s circle of consultants directs his efforts to math. Although Pence is a man of deep personal faith, prayers are no substitute for ballots, and he has never been one to confuse the two.

“Do I think he can be elected? I would be for him, but there are too many Trumps in the party,” says Bova, his childhood friend.

More than that, the party may have too little Pence, regardless of his enviable talents.

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Write to Philip Elliott at philip.elliott@time.com.


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