INDIANAPOLIS – In the last month, Donald Trump has gone through the resignation of his campaign chair, cratering poll numbers, Republican leaders defecting and denouncing his candidacy and days of responding to his own series of incendiary remarks.
But you wouldn’t know it watching Trump running mate Mike Pence.
The Indiana governor has remained an unyieldingly optimistic, stoic face within the campaign. He has persistently defended his defiantly unapologetic running mate despite the provocative remarks and worked to frame his running mate as a “good man.”
“He speaks his heart and he speaks his mind,” Pence said in an interview last week. “And I truly do believe this good man is going to be a great president of the United States.”
Pence, now tied closer to Trump than just about anyone outside the real estate mogul’s family, has continued to portray the Trump-Pence ticket as one on the upswing, telling a New Hampshire crowd on Thursday afternoon at one of his solo campaign stops that Trump is “still winning hearts and minds every day.”
“[Democrats and the media] keep thinking that they finally got him this time, all right? They finally done him in,” Pence told a gathering of about 250 in Manchester, New Hampshire. “But then they turn on the television the next morning, and Donald Trump is still standing stronger than ever before and fighting for the American people.”
But Pence’s rosy assertion that Trump is “standing stronger than ever” conflicts with the realities of poll numbers, which show the ticket losing nationally by five to nine percentage points and in each of the key swing states.
Yet his unwaveringly steady message over the course of his more than 30 campaign stops since joining the ticket has left no room for skeptics to misinterpret his loyalty to the GOP presidential nominee.
And some backers contend Trump’s expression on Thursday night of “regret” for past comments that caused “personal pain” – Trump’s first such contrition since becoming a candidate -- showed Pence’s impact on the party’s nominee.
“As I have known Mike Pence for 30 years, I see the influence of Mike on that campaign and on Donald Trump personally when I see that speech,” said Jeff Cardwell, a longtime friend of Pence’s who took over as chair of the Indiana GOP Party under him. “I think that it’s the influence that Mike Pence brings to the table – leadership with the servant’s heart.”
Pence, steadfast in his fidelity to Trump, told Fox News’ Sean Hannity one week ago that “the American people welcome Donald Trump’s candor.”
“I look forward to campaigning with him every day and running through the tape to a great victory this fall,” Pence added.
The duo speaks nearly daily and discusses strategy, a campaign aide noted to NBC News.
On Thursday Pence coolly passed off the promotion of campaign manager Kellyanne Conway and addition of chief executive Steve Bannon as “just the normal steps that campaigns take” during an interview with NH1 News, prior to Trump campaign chair Paul Manafort’s resignation.
Pence, notably, has a longstanding relationship with Conway. She served as his pollster during his 2012 gubernatorial campaign in Indiana. Conway, prior to her promotion within Trump Tower, had also worked as an adviser to the Trump campaign during its vice presidential vetting process.
Pence’s selection to the ticket was seen as an opportunity to shore up conservative support and provide an empathetic voice through swing states in the Midwestern and Rust Belt states.
But the governor, while traveling the country, has also made a concerted effort to reach out to other Republican leaders, including those who expressed hesitancy toward backing Trump’s candidacy.
Pence has recently spoken multiple times with Sen. Kelly Ayotte, who Trump originally abstained from endorsing in her re-election bid, and met with Sen. John McCain two weeks ago on the same day that Trump questioned the Arizonan’s efforts on behalf of veterans. The Indiana governor has also called John Kasich a “great friend” despite his running mate’s penchant for attacking his former primary rival, and a Pence campaign aide said the governor intends to campaign with Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida.
“He did in fact pick Mike to help unify, so I think he expects that of Mike – I don’t think that’s something where they say, ‘Hey, let’s walk gingerly around this,’” said an aide to Pence, noting that Pence’s role on the ticket is ever-evolving and that aspect of his addition has been warmly received by Trump.
Pence’s defense of incumbent Republican leaders led to speculation that it was his first steps toward breaking away from his colorful running mate, but the governor has remained staunchly defensive of Trump amid his criticism of a Gold Star family and suggestion that “Second Amendment people” could take action if Hillary Clinton is elected president in November.
When conservative radio host Charlie Sykes repeatedly pressed Pence on whether Trump should apologize to the parents of fallen Army Capt. Humayun Khan, Pence demurred, only going as far as to insist that Trump had made “it clear that Captain Khan is an American hero."
He has since characterized his running mate in a light that the candidate, himself, has largely not expressed.
“In Donald Trump, we have a leader that wants to bring this country together around our best ideals and our best hopes and our best dreams and not divide us relentlessly as has been happening for too long, for too long in our politics,” Pence maintained at a town hall just outside of Las Vegas on Wednesday.
And at nearly each of his more than 30 campaign rallies over the last month, Pence consistently delivers one of his most crowd-arousing stump speech lines: “When [Trump] does his talking, he doesn’t go tiptoeing around those thousands of rules of political correctness.”