LYNCHBURG, Va. — Ten thousand Christian students gave Mike Pence a distinctly lukewarm reception on Wednesday morning as he pitched Donald Trump's candidacy with a particular faith-based twist.
“There’s no place for believers on the sidelines in a time like this,” the GOP's vice presidential nominee told the crowd.
From the outset of his address to the Liberty University student body, members of which were required by the school to attend, Pence laid out his campaign message: “I believe come November 8 that Donald Trump will be elected the 45th president of the United States, and we will make America great again.”
But the largely Republican, evangelical gathering gave only a smattering of light applause when Pence mentioned the real estate mogul’s name.
“As a believer, we're called to aspire to live godly lives, but also we recognize that we all fall short,” Pence reflected, directly accounting for Trump’s past obscene language. “It's not about condoning what was said and done -- it's about believing in grace and forgiveness.”
The university’s president, Jerry Falwell Jr., who endorsed Trump in January ahead of the Iowa caucus, helped introduce Pence to the student body.
“I don’t agree with what he did and what he said,” said freshman Sam Willey, who joined four other Trump-supporting friends to hear Pence. “But he apologized for it. He acknowledged he said it, and people like Ben Carson -- his wife has said she didn’t agree with anything he had said.”
The recent NBC/WSJ poll showed just a 48 percent favorability rating for Trump among white evangelical voters, but the GOP nominee still bests Clinton by a 72 percent to 17 percent margin among them.
Yet Trump is working against the prospect that a significant contingency of evangelicals could alternatively vote for the likes of Libertarian Gary Johnson, write in a name or not vote.
“I know writing in may give Trump or Hillary more of a win,” suggested Brittany Howle, another university freshman. “But I’m going to live with my vote, so I have to know what I did is right for me.”
Howle, still mulling whether to vote for Trump, sat next to her friend, Taylor Palmer, who questioned whether she wanted to “vote for someone who degrades women as he does.”
The reception to Pence changed about halfway through his remarks when he turned his attention toward prosecuting the case against Hillary Clinton. His declaration that Clinton should be “disqualified” from serving as president garnered his first standing applause, and among the student body, the anti-Clinton attitude was prevalent – yet not enough to lead all of the students to throwing their own support behind Trump.
“I want a character with more moral fiber than what Donald Trump brings to the table,” Garrett Miller, a junior, said. “I want somebody with integrity – I think Gary Johnson has integrity.”
Wearing a Johnson campaign shirt, Miller stood with four other Johnson supporters. The Libertarian will speak to the same collection next Monday in the same venue.
Though Trump performed well among the Christian electorate in the GOP primary, polls – even in the likes of Utah, Arizona and South Carolina – show a significantly more narrow gap between support for the Democratic and Republican tickets despite between the states’ long, ardently conservative roots.
Pence, meanwhile, has visited multiple churches since joining the GOP ticket in July and defended Trump’s own faith.
On Wednesday, the Indiana governor, who grew up Catholic, told the student body the best decision he ever made was putting his faith in Christ.
The crowd also responded enthusiastically to Pence’s declarations to stand with Israel and his calls to defund Planned Parenthood.