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Pence Reaches Fork in Road of 2024 Campaign With New Trump Indictment

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Through four years as Donald J. Trump’s vice president, or perhaps three years and 350 days, Mike Pence brandished a peerless talent: insisting that all was going smoothly amid plain evidence to the contrary.

His 2024 campaign, he has long insisted, is going smoothly.

“I have great confidence in Republican primary voters,” he said in an interview, riding to an Iowa hog roast last weekend. “I’m confident we’re going to get a fresh look.”

It seemed notable that Mr. Trump, never shy about knocking anyone he views as a threat, had barely bothered to attack him in the race to that point.

It was early, Mr. Pence suggested.

“I think we’re coming,” he said calmly, “to a fork in the road.”

The fork has arrived.

As the former lieutenant to the Republican front-runner and a critical witness to that front-runner’s alleged crimes against democracy, Mr. Pence is campaigning now as many things: anti-abortion warrior, unbending conservative, believer in “heavy doses of civility.”

Yet he is running most viscerally, whether he intends to or not, as a cautionary tale — a picture of what can happen when anyone, even someone as loyal as he was, defies Mr. Trump.

“Anyone who puts themselves over the Constitution should never be president,” Mr. Pence said on a campaign conference call on Wednesday, during which supporters were reassured that he was on track to qualify for the first Republican debate. “Anyone who asks someone else to put them over their oath to the Constitution should never be president again.”

At minimum, he has gotten his former running mate’s attention.

“I feel badly for Mike Pence,” Mr. Trump posted on Wednesday on his social media site, Truth Social, repeating unfounded election claims. His former vice president, he said, was “attracting no crowds, enthusiasm or loyalty from people who, as a member of the Trump administration, should be loving him.”

Mr. Pence’s early difficulties are not shocking. Mr. Trump continues to dominate among Republicans, and much of the party’s base despises Mr. Pence for his lone act of major public defiance: resisting efforts to reverse Mr. Trump’s 2020 election loss.

At a candidate forum last week in Des Moines, where multiple extended ovations greeted Mr. Trump, Mr. Pence strained to coax applause at times even while serving up the reddest of meat. (“Americans are facing one man-made crisis after another, and that man’s name is Joe Biden,” he said, to near silence.)

He has failed to dissuade voters from ascribing foreboding meaning to the mundane. (“Is that a sign?” a woman whispered in Hudson, N.H., noticing a small snake near Mr. Pence’s foot as he spoke outdoors.)

He has compelled some supporters to worry openly about the size of his venues.

“So tiny — you’re a vice president, for heaven’s sake,” Shirley Noakes, 84, said before he arrived to another crowd of dozens in Meredith, N.H.

For those who once considered Mr. Pence the chief enabler in Mr. Trump’s White House — buoying him through relentless executive chaos that rattled democratic institutions well before January 2021 — any campaign stumbles amount to a well-earned comeuppance.

And this one, at least, is poised to answer some questions in the interim.

What do Americans think of Mike Pence now, without someone else blocking their view? What should they think?

“You want to take a picture or something?” he asked with a smile recently in Barrington, N.H., arriving unannounced to a home décor shop whose Republican proprietors appreciated the visit, they said later, but did not support him. “Just in case I turn out to be somebody important.”

Mr. Pence looks like a presidential candidate who knows that he looks like a presidential candidate.

“Out of central casting,” Mr. Trump used to say of him, in happier times, and the Pence 2024 team seems inclined to sustain the aesthetic.

He still shakes hands with his whole body — leaning, nodding, left palm on a voter’s upper back.

He still remembers names and local favorites, pandering with impunity. (In New Hampshire: “I stopped by Dunkin’ Donuts the other day …” In Iowa: “I look forward to seeing you at Casey’s and Pizza Ranch…”)

He is still liable to point straight ahead suddenly, as if drawing a firearm in the credits of a Hoosier James Bond, for the closing flourish of his remarks.

“The best” — point! — “days for the greatest nation on earth are yet to come.”

Mr. Pence, 64, has imagined himself as a prospective president for some time, entertaining White House runs during his years as a congressman and Indiana governor. In his 2022 memoir, he said he had developed “a healthy distrust of my own ambition.”

Much of Mr. Pence’s career can read now as a study in suboptimal timing, with a politician who could seem almost ostentatiously out of step with the moment.

Surely it helped relations that the dynamic between the two was never ambiguous: There was one star, one principal, one sun around which the operation would orbit.

In his stump speech, Mr. Pence speaks about being “well-known” but “not known well,” a man often seen standing quietly behind another man.

“Just a half-step off,” he told a couple dozen supporters in Ames, Iowa, “off the shoulder of the president.”

In the interview, he noted: “I don’t believe that we ever agreed to a single profile interview in four years. Because I never wanted the story to be about me.” (As it happened, Mr. Trump did not want that, either.)

Eventually, nightmarishly, the story became about him.

Mr. Pence said he sensed in the days after the Capitol riot that Mr. Trump was “deeply remorseful about what had occurred.”

The former president offers no apology for his role in the violence that surrounded Mr. Pence and his family that day.

Four words accompany almost any public appearance by Mr. Pence.

“So help me God,” he said in Nevada, Iowa, convening with first responders.

“So help me God,” he said in Napa, Calif., at a gathering of Catholic conservatives.

“So help me God,” he said in Meredith, N.H. “Which happens to be the title of my book.”

“He makes no such promise today,” Mr. Pence said.

As other candidates, including Mr. Trump, hedge and deflect their positions on abortion restrictions, Mr. Pence has eagerly promoted his role in vetting the Trump-nominated Supreme Court justices who helped overturn Roe v. Wade.

“He has forced the other contenders to step up and say where they stand,” said Kristan Hawkins, president of Students for Life of America. “I think he has the potential to do that as well on other issues.”

A smattering of encouragement has come from the nonvoting set. In Meredith, where several guests thanked Mr. Pence for his actions on Jan. 6, a 15-year-old named Quinn Mitchell sent the Q. and A. session into a brief hush.

Given the former president’s conduct, he asked, “do you think Christians should vote for Donald Trump?”

Mr. Pence held for a beat, proceeding carefully.

“I’m running for president of the United States because I think I should be the next president,” he said to applause.

The young attendee understood, he said later, that the candidate was probably best served avoiding a clean yes or no.

But when the two met afterward, Mr. Pence took care to commend the questioner.

“You have a bright future,” he wrote on a poster the teen had brought. “God bless.”

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