Voices: Mike Pence tried to thread the needle to the Oval. He never figured it out

 (Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

A former vice president on the campaign trail should be swarmed by supporters asking for selfies as his Secret Service detail clears the exit way for him after he delivers a speech in a swing state. The bulbs of cameras should be flashing and questions that reporters shout should blend into a singular drone.

Instead, at the Koury Convention Center in Greensboro, North Carolina, I was taken aback as I was charging my phone near the exit as former vice president Mike Pence left after giving a compelling but utterly unconvincing speech to the state’s Republican Party convention in June.

It was the weekend that his former boss, Donald Trump, had been indicted for showing classified documents to unauthorised people, and later in the day, the former president would deliver an address to the crowd. Florida Gov Ron DeSantis, still riding high from his double-digit victory in November as the warrior against “woke,” had addressed the crowd the night before in the main convention room where Mr Trump would close out the weekend but poor Mr Pence addressed a much smaller room and elicited little more than a few polite claps during his address.

Mr Pence called the indictment a “sad day” for America and called on Attorney General Merrick Garland to unseal it, which Mr Garland had done. At the same time, Mr Pence made the case for why he chose not to go along with the former president’s scheme to overturn the 2020 presidential election. He mentioned how his son, a US Marine, reminded him they had taken the same oath.

“It gives me no pleasure to say, but on that fateful day, the American people deserve to know that President Trump demanded that I choose between him and the Constitution,” Mr Pence said in his effort to explain why made a choice that led the insurrectionists on January 6 to call for his lynching.

My mind immediately went to that moment upon hearing the news of Mr Pence suspending his 2024 presidential campaign because it perfectly encapsulated his predicament; in a Republican Party so in thrall to Mr Trump, he could never fully disavow the former president and indeed tried to take credit for its accomplishments.

But he could not let those calls for his hanging go unanswered and his decision go unexplained to Republican voters. He felt he needed to give a sufficient answer.

He never truly figured out that balance and it led to him announcing the end of his campaign at the Republican Jewish Coalition presidential candidate cattle call.

The ultimate problem for Mr Pence was that his message proved insufficient for any wing of the Republican voting crowd. An ardent social conservative who had moved from being a Democrat in his youth to becoming a born-again evangelical Christian fiercely opposed to abortion, Mr Pence called for a fifteen-week abortion ban when speaking at the Faith and Freedom & Freedom Road to Majority Conference, a gathering of evangelical voters, in June.

But his message rang hollow as political neophyte Vivek Ramaswamy won over the crowd despite the fact that as a Hindu, he did not share the same faith as them. A day later, the group’s leader Ralph Reed gave Mr Trump the coveted closing address spot during the dinner. Mr Trump took credit for overturning Roe v Wade, given that he nominated the Supreme Court justices who overturned the 1973 case.

Of course, during the first Republican presidential primary debate, Mr Pence tried to knock Mr Ramaswamy down a peg for his lack of experience, but the efforts did nothing to kill the latter’s momentum. If anything, it fueled him as Mr Pence faded into the background. His attempt to attack former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley for not supporting his 15-week ban also fell flat, and Ms Haley has emerged as the preferred candidate of donors who want someone other than Mr Trump.

Conversely, the fact he worked for the Trump administration as Mr Trump’s good and faithful servant, twisting himself into knots to defend Mr Trump’s most reprehensible words and deeds, meant that he did not have enough distance between him and the former president for people to see him as a viable alternative.

Instead, former New Jersey governor Chris Christie has occupied the lane of the loudest Trump critic, accepting boos at the Faith & Freedom event and giving a more compelling defence of Mr Pence’s decision on January 6 than even Mr Pence did during the first presidential debate. This came despite the fact that Mr Christie was the first major elected official to get behind Mr Trump in the 2016 primary while Mr Pence, as governor of Indiana, had supported Sen Ted Cruz.

Back in North Carolina, Mr Pence did win some people who heard his speech over. One Republican told me: “I don't think it was needed. But he drew a clear line. He was unequivocal. And I think that's important.”

But more Republicans outright refused to listen to him, hence the smaller room.

Afterward, he exited the Koury center and walked with only his small entourage and detail as one supporter asked for a selfie. I was the only reporter there, so I whipped out my phone and asked him whether he read the indictment, since he had requested it be unsealed.

He never answered, his team said he wouldn’t take questions and he exited.