WASHINGTON — Less than a year after rioters stormed the U.S. Capitol targeting him for his refusal to overturn then-President Donald Trump's election defeat, former Vice President Mike Pence is traveling the country to lay the groundwork for a possible 2024 bid for the White House, according to several people close to him.
Pence is planning to visit Georgia, Florida and Texas in the next two months, according to a person familiar with his schedule.
There are competitive statewide races on the ballot in all three states, and they are among the most delegate-rich in the Republican nomination process. Pence also plans to give a February speech at Stanford University in California — the state with the most delegates in play in 2024 — the source said.
Pence is not likely to make a final decision about a campaign until after the 2022 midterm elections, but he is ramping up his political activity to better position himself for a potential run, according to several people close to him who spoke to NBC News on the condition of anonymity to disclose private conversations.
Pence's return to the political arena comes just 11 months after the pro-Trump Jan. 6 riot, and it is shadowed by the fury of activists who have not forgiven him for the perceived betrayal of presiding over the electoral-vote count in Congress.
On Wednesday, Pence, 62, traveled to New Hampshire, site of the nation's first presidential primary, where he raised money for GOP state Senate candidates, spoke at an event organized by the conservative group Heritage Action and met with voters at a bakery.
He's honing his messaging on the 2020 election — balancing between what he calls "irregularities" in the voting and his role in certifying President Joe Biden's victory after Trump supporters stormed the Capitol to try to stop him.
Perhaps most telling, he and his team have been courting donors for a possible bid, both at a conference in August and in private conversations.
That all adds up to the foundation of a presidential campaign. Most Republicans believe the nomination is Trump's for the taking — if he runs. Pence has told people in his inner circle that Trump's decision won't factor into his own thinking as he positions himself to campaign in a more traditional Republican lane, sources close to the former vice president said.
But Trump has given every indication that he will run — he's holding rallies, raising money and endorsing candidates — and it's hard for some Republican insiders to even imagine Pence could make a decision independent of Trump.
"People have to say that, but I don't think it's true," said Dan Eberhart, a major Republican fundraiser.
Eberhart doesn't see the former vice president winning the Republican nomination. "Maybe I'm playing the movie too early," he said, "but I don't see how Pence gets off the ground."
Pence allies argue the former vice president has his own "lane" within the GOP and he will be able to capitalize on those who support his traditional Republican credentials.
Publicly, Pence is playing down the urgency of making a decision, but not the possibility that he will run. For now, he plans to play a significant role in supporting GOP candidates in next year's midterm elections, including visits to competitive states and districts.
“To be honest with you, all of my focus is on 2022 because I think we’ve got a historic opportunity for not just a winning election, but a realignment election,” he told The Associated Press on Wednesday. “So I’m dedicating all of my energy to the process of really winning back the Congress and winning statehouses in 2022. And then in 2023, we’ll look around and we’ll go where we’re called.”
Polls show Trump is the overwhelming favorite of Republican voters right now, and the two men have clashed repeatedly over Trump's false and foundational claim that his loss in 2020 was fraudulent and over the riot at the Capitol.
Pence is walking a tightrope on the Capitol riot: While he was personally in danger and has said that he and Trump will never see "eye to eye" on the matter, he has also embraced the false narrative that there were "irregularities" in the 2020 election.
Trump has defended supporters who shouted "hang Mike Pence," who erected gallows at the foot of the Capitol and who searched in vain for the then-vice president as his security team whisked him to safety. On Wednesday, Trump called Pence a "good man" but said his former running mate made a "big mistake" in refusing to disrupt the counting of electoral votes in Congress.
Short, who is cooperating with the House committee investigating the Jan. 6 riot, has pushed Pence to keep his distance from Trump and discouraged him from trying to reconcile, according to a source familiar with those discussions. Short blames Trump for his role in the riot, the source said.
Pence is hardly alone in testing the waters for a presidential bid. Several other prospective candidates for the Republican nomination, including former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., and Sen. Rick Scott, R-Fla., have recently visited states that hold early nominating contests.
And helping the party's candidates in the midterm elections, a time-honored way to build influence, allows presidential hopefuls to travel the country, raise money and meet voters.
A Pence spokesman said the former vice president was not available for an interview. But a Pence ally described his return to the political battlefield as the first of many moves that have to be executed in order to leave open the option of running a full campaign.
"There's a pathway, and you have to keep taking each step," said the ally, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss Pence's deliberations.