Mike Pence Is Road-Testing His 2024 Pitch in Georgia

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KENNESAW, Ga.—It’s sometimes easy to forget how effective Mike Pence can be when he zeroes in on a political foe.

The former Vice President on Monday joined Gov. Brian Kemp for a rally in the northern Atlanta suburbs, where Kemp’s bid for re-nomination against David Perdue has emerged as a marquee race in Tuesday’s Georgia primaries. As Pence worked up the crowd, effectively leveling a clear critique of expected Democratic nominee Stacey Abrams while talking up both Kemp’s accomplishments and some of his own, he also reminded his fellow Republicans that his skills as a salesman remained formidable should he choose to make another run for office.

Warning against the “radical left wing” that he claimed wants to encroach on traditional values and indoctrinate students as racists, Pence hit all of the conservative movement’s greatest hits: abortion, prayer, and wokeness. “The Biden-Harris administration has unleashed a tidal wave of left-wing policies, eroded our standing in the world and stifled our economy,” Pence said, testing what sounded a whole lot like a campaign speech for his own return to power. “Frankly, Democrats have moved so fast, sometimes I don’t think the left hand knows what the far-left hand is doing.”

And, despite his own well-documented disagreements with former President Donald Trump, Pence was more than eager to wrap himself in the four years of the Trump-Pence administration, which many Republicans view as an unmitigated success. “In 48 short months, we achieved the lowest unemployment, the highest household income, the most energy production, the most pro-American trade deals, the most secure border, and the strongest military the world has ever known,” Pence said. “We did that.”

If that sounds like the words of a White House candidate—and not someone just brought in by a pal for an eleventh-hour ‘atta-boy’—it’s no accident. Pence is clearly considering his next steps in politics. His political operation never really shut down, and some of his long-serving aides are still afoot as he moves around the country looking to boost strategic allies like Kemp, a popular Governor in an unexpected battleground state. Not one to go by his gut, Pence’s performance in Georgia Monday evening suggests he anticipates being able to take some credit for Kemp’s expected win on Tuesday—and earn a chit for down the road.

It’s just an added bonus that Trump backed Kemp’s challenger.

As ambitious and as shrewd as anyone in his party, Pence made the calculated risk in 2016 to accept then-candidate Trump’s invitation to join forces against Hillary Clinton. Although they were political opposites—Pence, an unflinching Christian conservative to Trump’s thrice-married adulterous casino operator—the match worked for voters, at least in 2016. And although their term in the White House made for plenty of awkward moments and an abundance of compromises on the Vice President’s part, Pence nevertheless kept his word to serve at the pleasure, even staying silent on Jan. 6, 2021 as Trump launched a riotous crowd toward the U.S. Capitol in an unsuccessful effort to pressure Pence and others to countermand the results of the 2020 elections.

Trump has given indications that he intends to seek a rematch against President Joe Biden in two years. That’s frozen much of the Republican field, but not all of it. For Pence—and others like him looking at 2024 with uncertainty about both Trump’s plans and his political potency—the work toward the nomination has already started.

Most presidential campaigns begin years in advance of anyone officially pulling the trigger. For instance, Govs. Pete Ricketts of Nebraska and Doug Ducey of Arizona, as well as former Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey, have visited Georgia in recent weeks to stump for Kemp. And former Gov. Nikki Haley of South Carolina, former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida have been road-testing messages for potential bids, too—all have made visits to early-nominating states like Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina.

Pence, by virtue of being on a national ballot twice before and sporting a Rolodex built over a political career that included stints as a congressman and Indiana’s Governor, starts as a top-tier contender. But among the MAGA crowd, doubts remain. While he may be as conservative as they come, he also is a man who plays by the rules. And despite Trump’s urging him to try and get Congress to ignore the results of the 2020 election, Pence followed the law as he understood it on Jan. 6—even as a violent horde descended on the Capitol.

“He did a good job of balancing his morals with the needs of the role with Trump, but I think a lot of the stuff about the election is crazy,” says Michael Bova, a 63-year-old retired civilian staffer with the Defense Department from Hampton, Ga., who was among those in attendance on Monday night to hear the Georgia governor and the former Vice President.

Bova went to high school with Pence in Indiana and was still haranguing him about attending the upcoming class reunion. He was proud of his former friend’s success while also sympathizing with his current political situation. “As loyal as Pence was, he didn’t deserve what happened,” Bova said. “He didn’t have the power to switch the results. He would’ve done it if he could have.”

But among voters in the crowd here in Kennesaw, there was not a ton of clamor for Pence to get in the race just yet. It was not because of their overwhelming love for Trump, necessarily, but more of a sense of weariness from the whole era.

“I don’t think it’s good for Kemp to be campaigning with Pence. He just reminds us how divided the Republican Party here is, at a time when we can’t afford to be,” says Ryan Covan, a 22-year-old psychology student at nearby Kennesaw State University and a former campaign worker for Republicans two years ago. “Pence has some nerve being up here with Kemp. He shouldn’t ever show his face.”

Asked if Pence, a former conservative radio host, should be considering a 2024 run, there was zero hesitation from Covan: “Absolutely not.”

That was also the sentiment from 78-year-old Elva Dornbusch, a retired government hand from Kennesaw who would prefer DeSantis as the nominee. “Pence should definitely not run.”

But Pence was widely seen as a top-tier candidate in this crowd, even among the Pence skeptics. “The Vice President is not Georgia. Brian Kemp is Georgia. But to be honest, Pence and DeSantis would be the front-runners in 2024,” says Jay Neal, a 58-year-old public employee who traveled over an hour from Chickamauga. What about Trump? “I hope he doesn’t run. He’s too divisive.”

Pence, who has run his campaigns from the ledger and not the heart, would not entertain a run if he couldn’t win. Where Trump ran on his gut, Pence’s circle of consultants runs their efforts on math. Although Pence is a man of deep personal faith, prayers are no substitutes for ballots, and he has never been one to mistake the two.

“Do I think he can get elected? I’d be for him, but there’s too much Trump in the party,” says Bova, his childhood friend.

More than that, the party may just have too little Pence left in it, no matter his enviable talents.

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Write to Philip Elliott at philip.elliott@time.com