Mike Pence's role as top Trump loyalist may mean boom or bust in 2024

Vice President Mike Pence speaks during a White House Coronavirus Task Force briefing at the Department of Education in Washington, D.C., on July 8, 2020.
Vice President Mike Pence speaks during a White House Coronavirus Task Force briefing at the Department of Education in Washington, D.C., on July 8, 2020.Bloomberg photo by Joshua Roberts.

Donald Trump's presidency has been marked by theatrics, turmoil and dazzling made-for-TV spectacles. And then there's Mike Pence.

The subdued and austere vice president -- both Trump's most loyal lieutenant and, in some ways, his antithesis -- gets his moment in the spotlight Wednesday when he delivers the keynote speech of the Republican National Convention's third night. It's a pivotal moment for Pence, 61, ahead of his own potential 2024 bid for the White House.

No one has so completely tied his own personal political fortunes to Trump as Pence. Vice presidents are expected to stay in line and keep any disagreements with their bosses private, but those with presidential ambitions will occasionally make token demonstrations of independence.

Not Pence, whose unswerving loyalty, his critics say, extends to the point of obsequiousness. If Trump wins re-election, Pence may be rewarded with his own shot at the presidency.

But just like his boss, Pence's future has been thrown into doubt by the coronavirus outbreak. The vice president had two high-profile jobs this year: lead the White House's coronavirus task force and help deliver the Midwest for Trump's re-election. Neither file has gone very well, with more than 178,000 Americans dead from the virus and Trump trailing former Vice President Joe Biden in polls of Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, the states that determined the presidency in 2016.

In Republican circles, Pence has developed a reputation for unfailing loyalty, discretion and solemnity in an administration often marked by the opposite. Pence has become, in the words of one ally, a "utility infielder," and his speeches are relentlessly lauding of Trump.

"The choice in this election has never been clearer and the stakes have never been higher," Pence said Monday in Charlotte, North Carolina, before Republican convention delegates voted to renominate Trump. "We're going to make America great again -- again."

Pence will speak Wednesday from Fort McHenry outside Baltimore, inspiration for the "Star-Spangled Banner." The convention has opened a sort of window into the 2024 Republican primary, featuring speeches by potential Pence rivals including Nikki Haley, Mike Pompeo, Tom Cotton and perhaps even Donald Trump Jr., who is popular among the president's base.

A win in November will cement Pence as a top-tier candidate to succeed Trump, though by no means a clear front-runner. A loss would severely wound his prospects. If all of Pence's speeches so far are any indication, he can be expected on Wednesday to glorify a president who brought him to the national stage and will determine how long he stays there.

"I'm a Christian, a conservative and a Republican, in that order," Pence said during his introductory convention speech four years ago, before poking fun at himself. Trump is "a man known for a larger personality, a colorful style and lots of charisma," Pence said at the time. "And so, I guess he was just looking for some balance on the ticket."

Pence's reputation matches that description; one Capitol Hill Republican called him boring but harmless. He shares almost none of Trump's style, but has survived four years largely unscathed by White House infighting and rivalries in part because he never breaks with Trump publicly.

For example, Pence has not contested any of Trump's false claims about the virus or his criticism of members of Pence's task force. The deeply religious vice president stayed quiet when his boss, who seldom attends church, questioned Biden's faith.

Pence has also survived in part by ingratiating himself with the Trump family. When Donald Trump Jr.'s son broke his leg in 2017, Pence quickly called to check in on how the child was doing, a story Trump Jr. tells frequently, one Republican close to the Trump family said. Pence has never put his own beliefs, agenda or ambitions ahead of the president, the person said.

"He is solid as a rock," Trump said earlier this month of Pence. "He's been a fantastic vice president. He's done everything you can do. He's respected by every religious group -- whether it's evangelical, whether it's any other group, they respect Mike Pence."

That remark hints at one of Pence's most essential roles: a conduit for Trump to white evangelical Christians, a powerful faction of the Republican Party and a sure base for a future Pence presidential campaign.

Pence is "the reason this administration is more pro-life than any in the history of this country," former Wisconsin governor Scott Walker said at the convention this week. Walker called him the "perfect partner" for Trump, recalling Pence comforting Walker's ailing mother before arranging a call from Trump himself. "He's Midwest nice, but he's strong."

Trump appointed Pence as chair of the coronavirus task force in late January. The vice president has gone beyond Trump in following the advice of health officials, including more often wearing a mask in public. He kept task force meetings going privately after Trump ended its public briefings in April, and he has acted as something of a buffer between health officials and U.S. governors combating the outbreak and a president prone to disputing or even disparaging them.

Pence has frequently served as a White House point-of-contact for leaders across the country who either can't reach Trump or would prefer to go through Pence.

"He's a good hand, he's a reliable adviser, understands politics without being captured by politics, and is just rock-solid steady," said Heather Wilson, a Republican who served in Congress with Pence and a former Air Force Secretary under Trump who is now president of The University of Texas at El Paso.

When it came time to quietly notify the administration she was considering departing, she called Pence.

"He's very discreet, and because he's discreet, people trust him," Wilson said. "He's got tremendous capability that's maybe even undervalued from the outside."

On the re-election campaign, however, the Pence is considered "President Trump's top asset," said Ken Farnaso, a campaign spokesman.

He has made 73 trips to over two dozen states in the past year and is Trump's top surrogate to the crucial Midwest, officials familiar with the matter said. They asked not to be identified discussing campaign strategy. Pence held two bus tours in Pennsylvania last month and has made regular trips to Michigan, Wisconsin and Iowa -- conveniently, the likely first state on the 2024 primary schedule.

He has a penchant for Main Street whistle-stops, dropping into burger joints and coffee shops to chat up locals, the kind of face-to-face campaigning Trump avoids. "It's undeniable that his retail-style politics is complementary to the president," Farnaso said.

After Wednesday night, Pence's highest-profile moment in the campaign will arrive Oct. 7 when he debates Biden's running mate, California Senator Kamala Harris. The vice president has sought to raise expectations for his opponent, a former prosecutor.

"She's a skilled debater," he said in an interview on Fox Business Network last week. "But what I'm more looking forward to is 74 days of debating her team, their agenda, versus the proven record of President Donald Trump."