“History will hold Donald Trump accountable on January 6th,” Pence told hundreds of reporters at the typically humorous white-tie affair. “Make no mistake about it: What happened that day was a disgrace, and to portray it in any other way is an insult to dignity. What President Trump did was wrong. His reckless words put my family and everyone in the Capitol at risk that day.
Pence used similar words to address Trump in his book — writing that his former boss’ “irresponsible words put my family and everyone who works at the Capitol at risk.”
But his advisers saw the gridiron dinner as an opportunity not only to echo those sentiments but to amplify them. They also hoped it would help Pence win over his most skeptical audience these days: Washington insiders and journalists who gave him short shrift in early 2024.
“It was a different audience for him,” said Mark Short, Pence’s former vice presidential chief of staff and his senior adviser.
Pence’s world has long believed that the former congressman and Indiana governor could take the path to adulthood in 2024, now that he is in a unique position to speak truth to power as he is free of the constraints of the vice presidency.
“Mike is in another place where he can be free and free in ways that I don’t think other people in the industry have,” Short said. “So I don’t see where he is at the moment. I believe he’s got a good path forward.
A person close to Pence, who spoke on condition of anonymity to speak without the endorsement of the new campaign, noted that Pence has more room to grow among Republican primary voters than a rival like Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.
DeSantis, a person close to Pence, said that the combination of Ronald Reagan and Willie Nelson and Bono all together had sky-high expectations. But he is everything to everyone now, because no one really knows him. Pence, the person added, “is almost on the other side of it. Everyone thinks they know him. They think they have an expectation of who he is. Then when they meet them, they say, ‘I don’t think so. He is funny. He is personable. He is good.”
It remains to be seen if GOP primary voters want someone fun, personable and nice. Trump’s election victory was the opposite. DeSantis’ charisma owes a great deal to his battles with his political opponents.
Pence’s inner circle includes the late Sen. It looks to John McCain’s (R-Ariz.) 2008 campaign as a template. Then, as Pence is now, McCain found himself written off by other contenders — considered a relic of outdated politics when he rode the Straight Talk Express. They point out that as a congressman, Pence often freelanced for Fox News hits and bantered with reporters in wide-ranging hallway interviews before becoming governor and then vice president.
Those close to Pence are trying to help him regain some of his freewheeling attitude, ensuring that his campaign events include fireside chats and don’t take a pragmatic stance that the press is the enemy.
Pence — Joined Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) in 2006. Start a Congressional caucus for press freedom – Delivered on Saturday night. “We were able to stay part of our position because you stayed in your position,” he told reporters of the attack on the Capitol. “The American people know what happened that day because you didn’t stop reporting.”
But there are limits to how far Benz can go. He is fighting a subpoena to testify about that day, though he has called it crucial to be transparent about what happened on Jan. 6 — something he argues is based on protecting the separation of powers as Senate president. His criticism of Trump’s actions surrounding the insurgency was not echoed by any other major candidate in the field. While the gridiron comments were harsh, they didn’t roll off the camera — Pence’s advisers denied playing into their calculation in attacking Trump.
Fresh off his gridiron appearance, Pence will campaign in New Hampshire on Thursday and Iowa on Saturday, two early Republican primary states where he has drawn attention along with South Carolina. Specifically, for his Iowa caucus victories in 2008 and 2016, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and his aides are eyeing the rebuilding of his predecessor, then-Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee.
“If there’s a caucus of 150,000 people and I can put him one-on-one in front of 150,000 people, do I have a chance of winning?” A person close to Pence said. “I would tell you absolutely, unequivocally, yes.”