DES MOINES — Mike Pence worried about how he looked, squinting at a Fox News camera leveled at him in the midday sun.
“This is not good,” Pence said last week, during a warm-up in Indiana for the Iowa State Fair. “My eyes look really dark.” In a flash of uncharacteristic sternness, he pleaded with the cameraman, “You with me?”
It was the question beating beneath the surface of his entire campaign. Are donors with him? Are Trump-skeptical Republicans with him? Does he have any real shot at winning his party’s nomination after his actions on Jan. 6 to certify the 2020 election?
In a donor call later that day, Pence’s campaign manager, Steve DeMaura, would acknowledge the “question that the media seems to be obsessed with, which is: Will the vice president make the debate?”
A week later, now at the Iowa State Fair, the picture around Pence has improved. The maw of reporters at his press events has grown. He has racked up the 40,000 donors needed to qualify for the first debate, including 7,400 the day after the indictment, and seems a virtual lock for the second one as well. His campaign noted that he qualified in nine weeks, faster than Nikki Haley and Vivek Ramaswamy at 21 weeks, and Tim Scott at 13 weeks.
But he also is still registering in single digits in the polls, punished by rank-and-file Republicans for his refusal to overturn the results of the 2020 election. And as he arrived at the fair here Friday, his presidential campaign these days can feel like it’s engineered as much for his place in history as the Iowa caucuses.
After being left for political dead, Pence is leaning into his actions on Jan. 6 and promises to be relevant long past Iowa — win or lose — as the government’s star witness in special prosecutor Jack Smith’s case against former President Donald Trump. Trump is for the first time attacking Pence, and recruiting surrogates to do the same.
In a fire-side chat with Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds on Friday, Pence brought up his own role on Jan. 6 without prompting, then, walking to the Iowa Pork Tent at the state fair, said he welcomed questions about that day.
“Over the last two and half years, President Trump has continued to tell the American people things that just aren’t so,” Pence told POLITICO. “I had no right to overturn the election. I welcome the opportunity to set the record straight. And I’ll continue to.”
Mike Murphy, a former Republican member of the Indiana House of Representatives and a longtime friend of Pence, said, “He’s kind of like, ‘act on my principles and the future will take care of itself.’”
There were signs here this week that the controversy surrounding Jan. 6 may not be as debilitating for Pence as advertised. He drew a sizable crowd at the Des Moines Register Soap Box on Thursday, and the two toughest questions he received — “Why did you commit treason on Jan. 6?” and “How’s life going since Tucker Carlson ruined your career?” — were asked by a Democrat and a Kari Lake staffer, respectively.
As he made his way to the pork tent the following day, at least a half dozen fair goers thanked Pence for standing up to Trump.
“I appreciate what you did,” a man in a cutoff T-shirt, shorts and hiking boots told him.
“You gotta beat the other guy,” Troy Hazelbaker, a 54-year-old landlord and Trump voter from Pleasant Hill, told Pence of Trump.
“Keep smiling,” a man somewhat inexplicably handing out packaged toothbrushes told Pence.
And before the first debate, Pence is receiving the most intense media interest yet in his still-young candidacy.
“We’re coming up to the end of the summer, and all things Pence are coming together at the right time,” said Scott Reed, the co-chair of the Pence-allied Committed to America super PAC. “Trump is in another legal spotlight and those clouds are only going to darken. DeSantis is really struggling. He’s not meeting any expectations at any level. And Biden continues to not be ready for another four-year term. The contrasts with Pence are clear.”
Still, at times the Pence campaign has brought with it an element of dramatic irony. One elected official who has endorsed Pence, granted anonymity to assess the campaign candidly, confessed they don’t know whether he’ll catch on.
“What else can he do? He’s in a corner on it,” said David Kochel, the veteran Iowa Republican strategist. “He’s gotta lean on it. It’s true. He will have to testify in the trial. Why avoid it? There is still a percentage of the Republican Party that is very much anti-Trump. The people that are really pro-Trump are not going to be for Mike Pence under any circumstances. You might as well own your role in the whole thing.”
Pence’s camp is looking forward to the debate, where Pence is relishing the opportunity to deploy the skills he honed as part of high school National Forensic League speaking tournaments all the way to a vice presidential debate with Kamala Harris.
“I think if they’re being realistic, the goal is the debate where he has traditionally done really well and hope that provides him a platform where people see leadership and navigate conservative politics,” a Pence confidant, granted anonymity to frankly assess his campaign, told POLITICO.
Last year, a Pence ally speculated to POLITICO that Pence has “to decide whether he wants to be a Jim-Baker-like statesman that can just always be principled and speak the truth for the rest of his life, with no calculation of political cost,” the person said, granted anonymity to assess Pence’s campaign. “Or do you want to get the nomination?”
In Iowa, Pence was hoping he could do both. The world was his oyster — or pork burger, at least.
“This is my strike zone,” he told reporters.
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