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Pence Navigates a Possible White House Run, and a Fraught Political Moment


Former Vice President Mike Pence has emerged from the Jan. 6 hearings in a peculiar position.

To some Democrats in Congress, he has turn into something of a hero for resisting Donald J. Trump’s pressure campaign to overturn the 2020 election at a time when American democracy appeared to teeter on the brink. To Mr. Trump and his political base, Mr. Pence is a weakling who gave away the presidency. And to a swath of anti-Trump voters in each parties, he’s merely someone who finally did the fitting thing by standing as much as his former boss — years too late, after willingly defending or ignoring a few of Mr. Trump’s earlier excesses.

The whipsaw of images creates an uncertain foundation for a possible presidential campaign, for which Mr. Pence has been laying the groundwork. Yet the previous vice chairman is continuous along with his travels across the country upfront of the 2024 primaries, as he navigates his fraught positioning.

Much as he did after the 2020 election, when he tried to maintain his tensions with Mr. Trump from becoming public only to have him push them into the sunshine, Mr. Pence continues to walk a tightrope, attempting to make the most effective of a situation he didn’t seek without becoming openly adversarial to the president with whom he served and who stays the leader of the Republican Party.

Mr. Pence himself has said little about Jan. 6, though his aides have testified about his resolve as Mr. Trump and his allies tried to press him to subvert President Biden’s victory. On Monday, in an economic speech on the University Club of Chicago, Mr. Pence sounded very very like a candidate — but not very like someone all in favour of discussing the specifics of what he lived through on Jan. 6.

“We’ve all been through quite a bit over the past several years,” Mr. Pence told the audience. “A world pandemic, social unrest, a divisive election, a tragic day in our nation’s capital — and an administration seemingly day by day driving our economy into the abyss of a socialist welfare state.”

Insights into Mr. Pence’s mind-set on the time have come largely from the testimony of his former chief of staff, Marc Short, and of his former counsel, Greg Jacob. Mr. Pence, as he made clear in his Chicago speech, has kept his sights trained on the Biden administration and on electing Republicans, including Gov. Brian Kemp of Georgia and others who were sharply at odds with Mr. Trump, within the midterms. If Mr. Pence has sharper things to say, he may not accomplish that until the autumn, when he has a book coming out.

“The situation Mike Pence faces is a political briar patch,” said David Kochel, a Republican strategist who worked on Jeb Bush’s presidential campaign in 2016. “The more he’s praised by Democrats and the media for doing the fitting thing on Jan. 6, the more some in Trump’s base grow skeptical of his loyalty to the Trump team.” He added, “There isn’t a upside for him to lean into any of this.”

Afterward Monday in Peoria, In poor health., Mr. Pence called on Republicans to give attention to the long run and never the 2020 presidential election, an indirect reference to Mr. Trump’s incessant give attention to his election loss that continues to this present day.

“In the times between now and Election Day, let’s forged a positive vision for the long run for the American people,” Mr. Pence told a crowd of Republican activists at a Lincoln Day dinner. “Yes, let’s be the loyal opposition. Let’s hold the opposite side accountable each day. In the times between now and Election Day, we want you to say yes — yes to the long run, yes to a way forward for freedom and our cherished values. And the Republican Party should be the party of the long run.”

Thrice Mr. Pence lauded accomplishments of “the Trump-Pence administration” and he related a story from his highschool reunion a couple of former classmate who encouraged him by telling him, “We’d like you guys back.”

In the course of the speech, Kathy Sparrow, the chairwoman of the Republican Party of Hancock County, In poor health., shouted “Pence for president!” Mr. Pence ignored the shout.

“Trump had his turn,” Ms. Sparrow said after Mr. Pence’s remarks. “It’s time for Pence to step up and run.”

The eye on Mr. Pence provides each potential profit and peril as he considers running for president.

Paeans from Democrats actually don’t help him, but his actions before, during and after Jan. 6 give him a possibility to distinguish himself in what could possibly be a crowded primary field, one that will include Mr. Trump. Mr. Pence, whose support for Mr. Trump helped allay concerns about him from evangelical voters in 2016, has the advantage of starting as a known entity to the Republican base.

Mr. Pence has tried to stake out a lane for himself by representing the points of the Trump White House that appealed to conservatives but without the coarse and sometimes abusive behavior from Mr. Trump that they grew weary of. But this approach has been complicated by the proven fact that the loudest praise for Mr. Pence has come from Democrats who voted to question Mr. Trump.

“In a time of absolutely scandalous betrayal of individuals’s oaths of office and crimes being committed in every single place, anyone who does their job and sticks to the law will stand out as a hero on that day,” Representative Jamie Raskin, Democrat of Maryland and a member of the House select committee investigating the Jan. 6 attacks, said on NBC News’s “Meet the Press” on Sunday. “And on that day, he was a hero.”

Many other Democrats, nevertheless, have resisted the concept Mr. Pence — who’s referred to as cautious and dependable, and who didn’t break with Mr. Trump until the very end — needs to be praised, particularly as he considers campaigning to be the following president.

“Pence is currently on his own political rehab tour, hoping he can wash the stink of being Trump’s vice chairman off,” the Arizona Democratic Party said in a blast email when Mr. Pence made a visit to the southern border in that state recently. “But we all know simply because Mike Pence didn’t give in on January 6 doesn’t change the very fact he missed multiple opportunities to do the fitting thing for 4 whole years.”

Other Democrats, including the members of the Democratic National Committee, have highlighted that Mr. Pence adhered closely to Mr. Trump without wavering during a number of the biggest controversies of his presidency, including his first impeachment, and that Mr. Pence didn’t speak publicly about his views until moments before the election certification began on Jan. 6.

Nonetheless, even a number of the harshest critics of the Trump era have said that the actions of Jan. 6 shouldn’t be treated evenly.

“It’s true that for months before the election and weeks after, Mike Pence played together with Trump’s baseless election conspiracies,” said David Axelrod, a former top adviser to former President Barack Obama. “He actually didn’t dissent. But, at the tip of the day, he’ll be remembered for one critical moment when he resisted enormous pressure and literally put his life on the road for our democracy. And, for that, he deserves all of the accolades he’s received.”

The complaints from Democrats have focused not only on his tolerance for Mr. Trump’s norm-shattering behavior but in addition for the administration’s policies. Mr. Pence’s aides say he believed the administration was enacting policies he generally agreed with, including affirming conservative nominees for 3 Supreme Court seats. His long loyalty to Mr. Trump could resonate with some Republicans, but, with the previous president demanding total fealty, it’s a difficult line to walk.

“The irony is that Pence was arguably the first enabler of Trump,” said Rob Stutzman, a Republican strategist based in California. “He was the mainstream traditional conservative Republican who would go to donors and never just defend Trump and his policies, but with a straight face insist that Donald J. Trump was man.”

Mr. Short, Mr. Pence’s former chief of staff, has been critical of points of the House committee’s work, at a time when Mr. Trump has encouraged his supporters to view the panel as illegitimate. That has allowed Mr. Pence to maintain far from the work of the committee, which he has not appeared before himself.

Officials are expected to try again to ask Mr. Pence to testify, a move he’ll almost certainly resist. On Sunday, Representative Adam Schiff, Democrat of California and a committee member, left open the concept requesting his presence should occur.

“Actually a possibility,” Mr. Schiff said. “We’re not excluding anyone or anything at this point.”

Maggie Haberman reported from Latest York, and Reid J. Epstein from Peoria, In poor health.

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