Since being picked as Donald Trump’s running mate, Mike Pence has struggled at times to publicly defend the GOP presidential nominee’s bombastic comments and key policy issues central to his campaign.
Yet despite that, the Indiana governor has still positioned himself as the real estate mogul’s unflinching ally and earned the trust of the notoriously skeptical campaign brass at Trump Tower.
Nick Ayers, chairman of Pence’s VP effort, said that from the outset of the VP vetting process that Pence’s team committed to full disclosure with the Trump hierarchy. Ayers, the former head of the Republican Governors Association, said Pence made it clear to Trump that he and his cadre of advisers “would be loyal, and they would help maximize” his strong suits for the ticket.
“The best thing we can do for the campaign and Mike is to support his desire to be a loyal soldier on the ticket and to articulate the policies, vision, and mission of the Trump campaign,” Ayers told NBC News. “But do it in a way that doesn’t violate any of his principles, change who he is, while remaining authentic.”
Along with Ayers, Pence brought on a brass of advisers and staffers, all of whom have appeared to have melded into the Trump Tower campaign without sparks.
“Once they made a decision on Mike, they viewed it as a package,” said Ayers. “And they’re going to trust us until we give them a reason not to trust – and I don’t think we’ve given them a reason.”
The vice presidential campaign teams are traditionally built and put into place by the party’s nominee – as was done for Tim Kaine by the Clinton camp and Paul Ryan when he joined Mitt Romney’s campaign in 2012. But this summer, Trump welcomed nearly a dozen of Pence’s allies to form the VP candidate’s nest of advisers and staff.
“Part of running as the kind of candidate Trump is running as is that if you add someone from the Republican political establishment, you’d want to welcome the people around him,” said Nicolle Wallace, the former White House communications director under George W. Bush and presidential campaign veteran. “Because that’s not what you had. That’s [Pence’s] greatest attribute.”
In addition to Ayers, Pence brought on Marc Short, his former chief of staff in Congress; Josh Pitcock, Indiana’s federal lobbyist on Capitol Hill; Marty Obst, his gubernatorial campaign manager; Marc Lotter, his gubernatorial deputy campaign manager; and Zach Bauer, his body man and special aide; among others.
Even the likes of Pence’s nephew, a recent law school graduate, is helping full time on the ticket’s logistics and scheduling team out of Trump Tower.
“Knowing that he was able to bring his key people with him to integrate into Trump Tower helped make him more relaxed, at ease and able to function because those staff members know his preferences and know his family, too,” said Lotter, now his campaign press secretary.
During the VP selection process, Paul Manafort was a proponent inside the campaign of selecting Pence, but the rise of Kellyanne Conway as Trump’s campaign manager has only heightened the level of coordination and trust with Pence’s team. Conway had served as Pence’s campaign pollster prior to being hired by Trump.
“We’re involved in budgeting, battleground planning, fundraising, messaging -- to some extent one or all of us are part of those conversations, and that’s very helpful,” said Obst, who is overseeing the VP candidate’s operations team, including the governor’s fundraisers across the country.
Trump’s deputy campaign manager, Michael Glassner, joined Pence on his travels for multiple days over the first two weeks of his campaigning, but Trump’s senior staff has mostly left Pence unwatched since.
And the governor has given them little reason to worry.
When Pence was challenged last month on whether he agreed with his running mate’s controversial assessment that Russian President Vladimir Putin is a “better leader” than President Obama, the VP candidate doubled down in defense of Trump’s statement.
He has also echoed Trump’s policy position on trade, pronounced at rallies that Mexico will pay for the wall, and touted his running mate’s refusal to go “tiptoeing around those thousands of rules of political correctness.”
Pence has never publicly suggested his running mate should apologize for any of his incendiary remarks, nor publicly encouraged him to shift any of his policy positions. He did not condemn Trump’s birther claims, calling a Flint, Michigan, pastor “a nervous mess,” or propagating the conspiracy that Ted Cruz’s father was an associate of John F. Kennedy assassin Lee Harvey Oswald.
Instead, Pence, who calls Trump a “good friend,” has gone onto national TV to excuse Trump’s brashness, suggesting his running mate speaks in “the heat of the moment” and that “people talk a little different” in New York.
Tuesday’s vice presidential debate will be a chance for Pence to introduce himself to a country that does not know much about him. Eighty-six percent of Americans had either no opinion of him or had never heard of Pence when Trump picked him back in July. that number is down but still consists of one-third of the nation in a new NBC News|SurveyMonkey tracking poll.