IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.
2024 Election

Mike Pence navigates anger from all sides as he inches toward a presidential run

The former vice president, whose interview with NBC News was briefly interrupted by protesters, said he'll decide on 2024 by the end of June.
Former Vice President Mike Pence is interviewed by Dasha Burns on May 9, 2023.
Former Vice President Mike Pence is interviewed by Dasha Burns on Tuesday.NBC News

CINCINNATI — Mike Pence recalled Tuesday that he didn't find out until later that insurrectionists had chanted "Hang Mike Pence" while he hid in the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.

As he spoke in a sun-filled atrium of the Duke Energy Convention Center here, gay rights protesters serenaded the former vice president with chants of "F--- Mike Pence."

Shouting from the sidewalk outside and brandishing rainbow flags and homemade signs, the protesters were loud enough to briefly interrupt Pence's exclusive interview with NBC News.

It was a reminder that almost everywhere the mild-mannered Pence goes, he finds Americans who are moved to deep anger by his very presence. At a National Rifle Association conference last month in Indiana, he was the only featured speaker who was greeted with a cascade of lusty boos.

But Pence, who is slowly taking steps toward a 2024 presidential bid, appears to be undeterred by the vitriol — or by primary polls that consistently show him registering in single digits with Republican voters. Instead, he increasingly sounds like a candidate who has decided to enter the race but isn’t ready to make it official.

“I expect before the month of June is out, we’ll let people know of our decision,” he said. “If we choose to go forward, this race doesn’t really start until the August debate in Milwaukee.”

What remains less clear is the path to the presidency for a candidate whose traditional conservative politics, establishment bona fides and regard for democratic institutions have all been out of vogue for Republicans in the Trump era. Many of former President Donald Trump’s hardest-core supporters treat him as a traitor because he rejected Trump’s entreaties to obstruct the electoral vote count that sealed their fate in the 2020 election.

That helps explain why some veteran Republican operatives speculate that Pence could ultimately forgo a bid, even as he travels the country. He was in Cincinnati on Tuesday to speak at a gala for the Center for Christian Virtue, and he plans to visit New Hampshire — the site of the nation’s first primary — this month.

But while most campaigns-in-waiting have staffs assembled on the sidelines, Pence’s core team hasn’t expanded, and operatives in early states say there isn’t much chatter about outreach from his aides to potential hires.

By contrast, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who is running second to Trump and well ahead of the rest of the pack in national polls, has a super PAC that has hired aides and aired ads across the country. DeSantis is expected to launch his bid this month.

Trump, who is considering whether to skip the first primary debate sanctioned by the Republican National Committee, is the clear front-runner in a race for the nomination he has won twice before. And Pence has been reluctant to attack his former boss.

Asked Tuesday whether a jury verdict finding Trump liable for sexually abusing and defaming writer E. Jean Carroll altered his view of Trump’s fitness for the presidency, Pence sidestepped.

“I think that’s a question for the American people,” he said, adding that he had "never heard or witnessed behavior of that nature" while he served alongside Trump.

He has said repeatedly that Trump acted recklessly on Jan. 6 but declined to say whether he felt in his gut that Trump incited the riot at the Capitol. He frames his posture around the legal question of whether Trump’s actions amounted to incitement, and he suggested they may not have.

“I’m just not convinced that taking bad advice from lawyers and then expressing that opinion in the public rises to that level,” Pence said.

Along with the tightrope he would have to navigate amid factions of the Republican Party, Pence appears determined to find ways to distinguish himself from Trump without throwing hard punches. That could be a tall order considering his public record of agreeing with Trump on virtually everything from the day he joined the ticket in 2016 until Jan. 6.

“I think the people will make their own judgments about the waning days of the administration,” Pence said.

Still, he laid out points of departure from Trump that could form the core themes of a primary campaign.

“If I become a candidate for the Republican nomination for president, I’m going to talk about American leadership in the world,” he said. “I’m going to talk about the need to continue to support the military in Ukraine until they repel the Russian invasion.”

Trump has said he would end the war immediately upon taking office.

Pence said he would push for national restrictions on abortion, referring to the matter as “the calling of our time” and saying he would “seize every opportunity” to limit the procedure. Trump has been reticent on a national abortion ban, but he recently pledged to “get something done” if he’s elected president again.

He was most aggressive in criticizing Trump for vowing to oppose cuts to Social Security and Medicare.

“The former president’s position on Social Security and Medicare is identical to Joe Biden’s,” Pence said. “Joe Biden’s position is insolvency. He says we won’t talk ever about compassionate reforms of entitlements, and the former president has taken exactly the same view.”

Pence acknowledged that Trump is the far-and-away front-runner for the nomination but said that is “a reflection of how deeply concerned people are about the failed policies of President Biden at home and abroad.”

Because of that, he added, voters are “naturally drawn to the familiar in hard times.”

What they don’t appear to be drawn to right now — based on survey data and the fury of both the Trump base and Democrats — is a Pence campaign.

But he suggested the numbers don’t faze him.

“Regardless of what the polls show, I think the Republican voters are looking for new leadership in our party and in the country,” he said.