Pence says 'elections are about choices' after combative first debate performance

WASHINGTON (AP) — Former Vice President Mike Pence says voters should expect to see the same, more combative candidate at the next GOP debate as he urged his former running-mate-turned-rival Donald Trump to join his competitors on stage next time around.

“You know, elections are about choices and I welcomed the opportunity last night to draw a contrast with other candidates on the stage who I think are walking away from the conservative agenda that has defined our movement for 50 years and holds the keys for restoring American leadership in the world and American prosperity and security at home,” Pence said in an interview from Milwaukee a day after the first Republican presidential primary debate.

With his campaign still mired in single digits and facing a skeptical GOP base, Pence delivered a surprisingly pointed performance Wednesday night. He launched repeated broadsides against his non-Trump rivals and tangled, in particular, with 38-year-old tech entrepreneur and political novice Vivek Ramaswamy.

“Now is not the time for on-the-job training,” Pence said. “We don’t need to bring in a rookie."

At one point, Pence was reprimanded by the Fox News moderators for going after his allotted time.

The debate came as Pence and his campaign have taken a more aggressive posture toward Trump following a pair of indictments related to the former president's efforts to overturn the results of the 2020 election. Pence spent four years as Trump's most loyal defender before breaking with him over those efforts and has said: “Anyone that puts themselves over the Constitution should never be president of the United States."

Still, Pence was among all but two of the candidates who clearly raised his hand when asked Wednesday night whether they would support Trump, the race’s prohibitive front-runner, if he is the nominee and convicted on criminal charges.

At the same time, he rebuffed Ramaswamy's efforts to get him to commit to a possible pardon if he is elected, saying that a pardon "usually follows a finding of guilt and contrition by the individual that’s been convicted.” Trump has insisted he did nothing wrong and has continued to repeat his election lies.

Pence and his team have long tried to make the case that the candidate is “well-known but not known well” by Republican voters. They believe he can win over skeptics by introducing them to his decades-long record as a conservative former member of Congress and Indiana governor before he signed onto the Trump-Pence ticket.

“What I wanted people to understand, and I say it with great humility, is that I am the most qualified, the most tested, the most proven, conservative leader vying for the Republican nomination,” he said. Pence said his strategy Wednesday “was just to be myself."

“Look, I understand most people know me as vice president. And I took that role very seriously. You take a half step back, you’re prepared, you’re of service. I thought the vice president should never be the story and I took that posture. But people that have known me over the years know that I know how to fight for what I believe in,” he said.

Pence, during the debate, also slammed candidates like Ramaswamy and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who argued the U.S. should not be providing additional support for Ukraine amid Russia's continued invasion.

When former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley argued that it was unlikely Republicans could realistically pass a national abortion ban, Pence, an evangelical Christian who has made his opposition to abortion rights a central plank of his campaign, blasted her call for consensus as “opposite of leadership.”

”Now is not the time for on-the-job training. And with all due respect to my friend from Ohio and others in the field, I wanted people looking on to know that I’ll be ready Day One should I become president of the United States," he said.

Pence was also the subject of one of the questions when candidates were asked whether they believed he had done the right thing by rebuffing Trump's efforts to stop him from certifying Joe Biden’s presidential election victory on Jan. 6, 2021. All but Ramaswamy said he had.

Pence said he hoped Trump, who has said he will skip all the Republican primary debates, citing his commanding lead, will change his mind and join the other candidates on stage next month when they meet again in California.

“I believe that this country's in a lot of trouble and every man and woman who aspires to carry the banner of the Republican Party owes it to the American people to get on that stage to answer the tough questions and to articulate their vision for the future of the country and let the voters decide,” he said.