Several more challengers this week have jumped into the Republican race to try to thwart former President Donald Trump from capturing the party’s presidential nomination for a third consecutive time.
There is former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, a Trump rival-turned-ally turned foe again. A current governor, billionaire Doug Burgum of North Dakota, also has launched his campaign. And on Wednesday, Trump’s longtime loyal vice president, Mike Pence, announced an unprecedented quest to defeat his former boss. He wasted no time denouncing Trump in a manner he had assiduously avoided.
"I believe that anyone who puts themselves over the Constitution should never be president of the United States,” Pence said in his first presidential campaign appearance on Wednesday in Iowa.
"And anyone who asks someone to put them over the Constitution should never be president of the United States again,” he said.
When pro-Trump protesters stormed the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021, there were chants of “Hang Mike Pence” because of the vice president’s refusal to follow the president’s demand that he derail the electoral formality of declaring Biden the 2020 election victor.
“On that fateful day, President Trump’s words were reckless. He endangered my family and everyone at the Capitol,” Pence said at the midday rally at the Future Farmers of America Enrichment Center in Ankeny.
Pence, who is without a hint of any scandal, ticks a lot of conservative Republican boxes on the economy and foreign policy issues. He is a white evangelical Christian, a core constituency of the party. And he is out to portray himself as the most conservative of all the party’s candidates on social issues, such as abortion.
"After leading the most pro-life administration in American history, Donald Trump and others in this race are retreating from the cause of the unborn,” said Pence during Wednesday’s campaign launch event.
Why then is Pence polling in the low single digits among Republicans and far behind Trump’s closest challenger, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis?
“This is not electing a pastor or a minister,” said Karen Hult, chairperson of the political science department at Virginia Tech, a public university in Blacksburg.
“This is about electing someone who is doing in the office what you want a president to do, and what Mr. Trump has been able to do, in terms of his judgeship appointments, positioning against, for example, continued U.S. support for the war in Ukraine, and his ability to focus more on the populism rather than on some of the old fiscal conservatism of the Republican Party,” she told VOA.
The vice presidency diminished Pence “even more than it has diminished most vice presidents,” according to Jeremy Mayer, an associate professor at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University in Fairfax County, Virginia.
On Wednesday, Pence said he was proud of the record of the “Trump-Pence administration,” such as its judicial appointments.
“President Donald Trump demanded extreme loyalty to the point of obsequiousness,” Mayer told VOA. “There are so many videos of Mike Pence saying the most obsequious things to Trump, about Trump. No previous vice president had to put himself so low. Not even Hubert Humphrey with Lyndon Johnson had to put himself down so much by elevating the president.”
In his harsh remarks about Trump at the Iowa event, Pence sought to begin erasing some of that image.
“Trump has transformed the party,” Mayer said. “You see the people that want to replace Trump, like Ron DeSantis — he's heading into populism and wading into culture wars. And Mike Pence can do that in terms of substance. He can talk about the policies of the culture war. But what he can't do, so far, has not shown us, is the ability to be a populist in tone. And that's what the Republican Party is looking for after Trump.”
Pence “doesn't seem to have the breakout skills that you would expect, like Nikki Haley or Tim Scott,” two Republican candidates from the state of South Carolina running for president, according to Mayer.
Haley, born to Sikh parents from India, is a former governor and Trump appointee as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. Scott, who grew up in working-class poverty, is the first Black Republican elected to any office in the state since the 19th century and is a current U.S. senator.
Pence is likely to remain a long shot for the party’s nomination unless the campaigns of both Trump and DeSantis falter, Hult predicted.
“It’s not impossible for all kinds of missteps or criminal indictments or a range of other things [to] begin to rain down on Mr. Trump. Maybe Governor DeSantis continues to make at least some missteps,” Hult said.
Only two vice presidents who had been out of office have made it back to the White House by election. Republican Richard Nixon did it with his victory over Vice President Hubert Humphrey, a Democrat, in 1968. The second time was three years ago when Joe Biden, as the Democratic Party nominee, defeated incumbent Trump, also sending Pence packing.
Whatever happens in next year’s Republican primary election, Pence has already made history, becoming the first former U.S. vice president to directly challenge his onetime running mate.