CAPITOL HILL - Republican vice presidential candidate Mike Pence sought Tuesday to deflect his refusal to label a white supremacist “deplorable” while attempting to project unity between the presidential ticket and Republican lawmakers in Washington.
Pence met with members of the House and Senate Republican caucuses, one day after a television interview in which the Indiana governor declined to say that former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke was deplorable, saying he preferred not to call people names.
Duke has praised Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump while running for a Senate seat in Louisiana, prompting questions about white supremacists when Trump or Pence speak with reporters.
“I have no idea in the world why this man [Duke] keeps coming up,” Pence said at a news conference with House Speaker Paul Ryan of Wisconsin. “We live in a free country, and people of ill motives can associate themselves with politics.”
As an example, Pence pointed to the public support for Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton by the father of Omar Mateen, the man responsible for a mass shooting at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida.
“I would draw no more conclusions of that man’s [Duke’s] support [for Trump] than I would for the father of a terrorist who killed 49 Americans [who] was seen at a Hillary Clinton rally cheering her on,” the governor said.
The word “deplorables” came to dominate presidential campaign coverage after Clinton described half of Trump's supporters as a “basket of deplorables” late last week.
The Trump campaign has pounced on those words, and Pence kept up the attack on Capitol Hill.
“I’ve never heard a major party candidate for president in the United States speak about the American people with such contempt,” Pence said. “For Hillary Clinton to express such disdain for millions of Americans I think is one more reason that disqualifies her to serve in the highest office in the land.”
Clinton has said she regrets the remark, but stands by her observation the Trump campaign has drawn the support of white supremacists and that he has made derogatory comments about racial minorities, women and others.
Democratic lawmakers have come to Clinton’s defense, insisting nothing she said disqualifies her from office.
“She’s explained that she is more concerned about the Trump-Pence ticket demeaning Muslims, demeaning Mexicans, demeaning so many people,” Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy told VOA. “That’s what she’s concerned about.”
Connecticut Democrat Chris Murphy said his constituents know which presidential candidate employs offensive rhetoric.
“People in Connecticut aren’t going to vote for Donald Trump. They see him for the racist, misogynist, xenophobic candidate that he is,” Murphy said.
WATCH: Mike Pence Accents Republican Unity
When not answering questions about Duke, Pence stressed unity of vision and purpose with Republican lawmakers.
“The American people should be confident that 56 days from now we can elect a president and re-elect majorities in the House and Senate that will be ready on day one to restore American strength at home and abroad,” the governor said.
House Republican leaders were quick to echo that message and heap praise on Pence, who served as a congressman before becoming governor.
“Mike Pence is a friend. Mike Pence is a former colleague,” Ryan said. “Seven out of 10 Americans believe this country is headed in the wrong direction. He [Pence] is working with all of us to make sure that we put this country back on the right track.”
Ryan did not mention Trump, a man he has criticized at various times and initially hesitated to endorse.
Democrats disputed the notion of a Republican-led Congress working hand in hand with a Trump administration.
“We [Democrats] are in good shape to win back control of the Senate,” said Murphy. “I think Americans, frankly, are fed up with the Republican Congress doing nothing.”