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The G.O.P. Has Drifted, but Mike Pence Is as Conservative as Ever

Mike Pence is the most conservative candidate competing for the presidency. The former vice president wants abortion banned from the point of conception. He’s the only major candidate calling for cuts to Social Security and Medicare. And he has the most hawkish foreign policy, especially on confronting Russia.

Being the most conservative used to matter in Republican presidential primaries.

Not anymore.

The president Mr. Pence served under, Donald J. Trump, transformed the G.O.P. electorate, making the path to a Pence presidency visible only to the truest of true believers. Mr. Pence has not really changed all that much since he was governor of Indiana less than a decade ago, but his party has. It’s the same Mike Pence but a different G.O.P., and it’s a different G.O.P. because of his former boss.

The Republican Party’s intense focus on character and morality during the Bill Clinton years has been replaced by a different credo — articulated by a former Justice Department official, Jeffrey B. Clark, during a recent Twitter squabble over Mr. Trump’s fitness for office.

“We’re not a congregation voting for a new pastor,” argued Mr. Clark, the one senior Justice Department official who tried to help Mr. Trump overturn the 2020 election. “We’re voting for a leader of the nation.”

By this way of thinking, it doesn’t matter that Mr. Pence has been married only once and is so determined to honor his vows that he doesn’t allow himself to dine alone with a woman who is not his wife. Nor does it matter how many affairs Mr. Trump has had or whether he paid hush money to a porn star. Mr. Trump silences all of that, in a way, with one blunt social media post: “I was able to kill Roe v. Wade.”

Mr. Pence, who is expected to announce his candidacy on Wednesday at a rally in a Des Moines suburb, is given little chance by anybody outside of his core team. Republican pollsters and strategists have written him off. Faced with Mr. Pence’s situation — being both dominated and burdened by Mr. Trump — most politicians would have concluded, after reviewing polls and focus groups, that there was no “theory of the case” for him to win the nomination.

But Mr. Pence appears to have no use for statistical analysis.

Whereas some Republican politicians use God as a talking point and have little acquaintance with the Bible, Mr. Pence makes every decision through the filter of Scripture. When he says he has prayed on a decision, he means it, and that includes running for president. Throughout his political career, according to people who have worked for him, Mr. Pence has gathered around his staff and his family in frequent prayer. If his theory of the case in this race seems to rely more on faith than data — that’s because it does.

Mr. Pence served as Mr. Trump’s yes-man for three years and 11 months. In that final month, Mr. Pence refused to follow a presidential order that was plainly unconstitutional: to single-handedly overturn the 2020 election. His loyalty to the Constitution was rewarded with people in a pro-Trump mob chanting “Hang Mike Pence” as they stormed the Capitol, while Mr. Pence and his family rushed to a barely secure room.

Instead of punishing Mr. Trump for how he treated Mr. Pence, Republican voters have made him their front-runner. More than 50 percent of Republicans support the former president in national polls. Mr. Pence draws around 4 percent. Even in heavily evangelical Iowa, where Mr. Pence is staking his candidacy, he polls around 5 percent.

Mr. Pence has no trouble explaining his policy positions. He will run for president as a national security hawk, a staunch social conservative, a free-trader and a fiscal conservative. Nobody who knows him well doubts his sincerity on any of these issues. He may be running the least poll-tested campaign in the Republican field.

The problem is that the Mike Pence known to most Republicans is a man whose job for four years was to cheer Mr. Trump through policies and actions that often contradicted his professed principles. If Mr. Pence, in a moment of introspection, wonders why the party he has long aspired to lead no longer seems interested in being led by someone like him, he may shoulder some portion of the blame himself.

The Trump-Pence administration added around $8 trillion to the national debt. So much for fiscal conservatism. The Trump-Pence administration had a trade policy that, for the most part, delighted protectionist Democrats. So much for free trade. And while Mr. Trump spent his first three years in office largely listening to his more conventional national security advisers, in his final year he laid the groundwork for a withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan that Mr. Pence did not support.

Mr. Trump’s current articulation of his “America First” foreign policy — which involves dropping U.S. support for Ukraine and musing about giving away chunks of Ukrainian land to the Russians — could not be further removed from Mr. Pence’s Reaganite vision of America defending freedom across the globe.

But it’s not just Mr. Pence’s anti-populist policies that hobble him. It’s that Republican voters have sharply different expectations of their leaders than they did during Mr. Pence’s political rise as a member of Congress and then governor of Indiana.

For the past seven years, Mr. Trump has trained Republican voters to value a different set of virtues in their candidates. He has trained them to value Republicans who fight hard and dirty, using whatever tactics are necessary to vanquish their opponents. He has also trained them to avert their gazes from behaviors that were once considered disqualifying.

For four years, Mr. Pence, too, averted his gaze. He stuck with Mr. Trump through numerous controversies including the leak of the “Access Hollywood” tape, in which Mr. Trump boasted about grabbing women’s genitalia. He vouched for Mr. Trump’s character with skeptical evangelicals with whom Mr. Trump ultimately forged his own relationship.

When Mr. Trump, as president, showered praise on the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, his vice president, bound by loyalty, stayed silent. Yet recently on the campaign trail, after Mr. Trump had congratulated Mr. Kim for his country’s readmission to the World Health Organization’s executive board, Mr. Pence scolded his former boss for “praising the dictator in North Korea.”

Mr. Pence may finally feel liberated to tell voters what he really thinks about Mr. Trump. His problem is that most Republicans don’t want to hear it.

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