GREENSBORO, N.C. (WGHP) – One of the newest but most familiar candidates for the Republican presidential nomination brought his conservative evangelism to Greensboro on Saturday and talked a lot about a guy scheduled to speak later in the day.
Former Vice President Mike Pence preached his politics to a lunch crowd estimated at about 400 at the Koury Convention Center, one of the primary voices – along with former president Donald Trump and another contender, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis – to speak during the 4-day North Carolina Republican Convention.
“To whom much is given, much will be required,” Pence said, quoting Luke 12:48 right off the bat. “I’m running for president because I know we can take this country back. That will require new leadership. …. The crises we face were all man-made. … That man is [President] Joe Biden.”
That drew chuckles, and he added, “We need a new Republican president who will chart a new course based on our tireless conservative principles.”
And for the next 45 minutes or so, Pence defined how conservative he is and how he would govern if he were to be elected president in 2024. DeSantis had the audience on Friday night, and Trump, who spoke at a similar event in Georgia on Saturday afternoon, is scheduled to speak at dinner.
Pence only announced his candidacy on Wednesday, but any energy that kickoff might have generated has been caught in the turbulence caused by the federal indictment of his former boss at the White House, Trump, who faces 37 felony counts based on his taking, handling and then conspiring to retain dozens of top-secret and classified federal documents.
And even if in his first days Pence wanted to spread his gospel about the nation’s need for “different leadership” and his plan to provide it, the first expectation of any audience was to hear his response to the indictment of Trump and what that could mean to the 2024 election.
Pence was about 10 minutes into his speech when he got to that point, and he repeated some of his prior “wish-it-wouldn’t-happen” mixed in with party-line assaults on the Department of Justice and his view of “the rule of law.”
“We gather after a sad day,” he said. “There has been an unprecedented indictment by a Justice Department run by the current president against a former president and his potential political rival.”
He cited the multiple investigations of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton during the 2016 election – she was cleared by the FBI – the investigation into Russia’s role in affecting that election – which the Mueller Report confirmed but Pence called a “hoax” – and the “Twitter files” allegations of a coverup and the “slow walk of an investigation” into the contents of a laptop once owned by Hunter Biden, the president’s son.
He repeated his original hope that the DOJ would not issue the indictment of Trump. “I am deeply troubled for the indictment to move forward,” he said. “It has the capacity to divide our country. … The first principle in America is ‘innocent until proven guilty.’ The former president is entitled to the presumption of innocence.
“Yesterday I called on the attorney general to unseal the indictment. … Today I’m calling on Attorney General Merrick Garland to stop hiding behind the special counsel and explain why this indictment went forward. … The American people deserve to know.
“We also need to hear our former president’s defense. … Each of us can make our own judgment. … Republicans stand on the rule of law. … We have to be patient and know that we will soon know the facts. … I promise you that as president I will clean house at highest levels at the Department of Justice … and restore confidence in equal treatment.”
Conservatism and religion
Otherwise, his speech was heavy on presenting his candidacy, his resume, his philosophies and the need for change, as he sees it.
“The next Republican nominee and the next Republican president will get his start on Super Tuesday right here in the Tar Heel State,” he said, and when one person clapped, he added. “We have one Hoosier here.”
As he entered the ballroom, Pence was inundated by well-wishers and selfie-takers. He chatted with House Speaker Tim Moore (R-Cleveland), among others, and Rep. Jon Hardister (R-Guilford) stopped by his table for a quick snap that was headed for social media.
Pence was seated – although he didn’t appear to eat – at the same table with 8th District Rep. Dan Bishop (R-Charlotte). His wife, Karen, accompanied him, and state GOP Chair Michael Whatley sang his praises during an introduction.
A former member of Congress and governor of Indiana, he talked about how he found God and Republican politics in college, admitting he was once a Democrat but was brought to the GOP by Ronald Reagan’s philosophy. He said he once hosted a radio talk show that was “kind of like Rush Limbaugh on decaf.” He calls himself a “Christian, a conservative and a Republican, in that order.”
Pence’s speech was part tent-revival evangelism, replete with quoted Scripture, encouragement of prayer and admonishment to focus on God and “turn our hearts and minds back to him.’’
He never mentioned those usual four-letter-word Republican calling cards – “guns” and “woke” – but he did talk about military might and “political correctness” as two things he would address. Like DeSantis the night before, he promised to restore the name of North Carolina’s “Fort Bragg,” even though it honors a Confederate general.
“American values are under assault,” Pence said. “Our students are being indoctrinated to radical ideology, and our corporate boardrooms … punish consumers in the name of left-wing social justice.”
And other than references to Trump – which were only occasional – he never named any of the nine other GOP candidates, referring only to “some in this race.”
He also didn’t mention any of the three Republicans running for NC governor – Dale Folwell, Mark Robinson and Mark Walker. He shouted out to Bishop, one of the House’s most conservative members, and 11th District Rep. Chuck Edwards (R-Buncombe), but not any of the four other Republicans from NC serving in Congress who had been expected to attend. Sen Thom Tillis and Rep. Patrick McHenry were not scheduled.
Pence did cite his “old friend” Moore and his leadership and mentioned the impact of NC Supreme Court Chief Justice Paul Newby. But he raised his voice – and drew strong applause – for recognizing “the new GOP state Rep. Tricia Cotham,” whose abrupt party switch in April sealed the Republicans’ control and clout in the General Assembly.
In addition to Christianity, Pence spoke a lot about history – America’s generational accomplishments and his personal resume as a member of Congress and the governor of Indiana – but mostly he delivered the predictable assault on Biden and the “radical left” that are “destroying our country.”
That meant illustrations about the impacts of inflation, the effect on the military and America’s strength abroad, which he sees as having declined. He also talked about the attacks on Democracy in the U.S.
About Jan. 6
About the Capitol insurrection of Jan. 6, 2021, when Trump’s supporters violently attempted to overthrow the election and threatened Pence and his family with violence in the process, he repeated some of what he had said during his announcement speech about Trump’s role that day.
“In 2017, I took an oath to support and defend the Constitution. …. President Trump demanded that I choose between him and the Constitution…. I chose the Constitution, and I always will.” He then explained the constitutional process for elections in the states and his role as vice president in certifying those results.
“I had no authority to object or to return the results,” he said. “My former running mate insists and continues to insist that I had that right. … He was wrong then, and he is wrong now. Kamala Harris will have no right to overturn the results when a Republican is elected in 2024.”
He said he prays for Trump and “hoped that he would come around. The Republican Party always will stand for the Constitution. Anyone who puts themselves over Constitution should never be president.”
About abortion rights
“I am proud to have served as vice president in the administration that nominated three justices that sent Roe v. Wade to the trash heap of history, where it belongs, and gave America a new beginning.
“When President Trump ran for president in 2016, he promised to be a conservative. … Now he is starting to sound different. … Others in the field are starting to back away from protecting unborn lives … Some states passed laws that were said to be too harsh. Some say Roe cost us the midterm election. …. I always will stand without apology for the sanctity of human life. And that should be the stand in every state in America.”
About fiscal responsibility
“Big spending has become a lot more bipartisan these days,” Pence said. He cited the financial weight of entitlement programs, which “will grow to $150 trillion by the time my three granddaughters are out of college [about 2043 or so]. Sadly, my old running mate’s policy is the same as Joe Biden’s policy. … We have to tackle this humanely and compassionately and …. change the ‘new deal’ to a better deal.”
About Ukraine and the world
“As war rages in eastern Europe and we have confrontations in the South China Sea … my former running mate and others who seek the presidency would abandon that role in whole or in part,” he said. “Not on my watch.
“Ukraine is not a ‘territorial dispute’ or ‘driven by a genius.’ … It’s about one man. Ukraine is not our war, but freedom is our fight. If you think Putin would stop at Ukraine, you have – as we would say in Indiana – ‘another think coming.’”
He cited Ronald Reagan’s doctrine that said, “If you are willing to fight communists in your country, we’ll give you the means to fight them there, so we don’t have to fight them here. That took down the Soviet Union.”
About his chances
On whether he can win from a GOP field of 11, which Trump leads in the polls.
“I assure you that I know we can beat Joe Biden,” he said. “People are frustrated, anxious and even angry. So much has been lost. …. Despair is not in our nature. Surrender is not in our vocabulary.
“We must remember who we are and what we’ve done. Every time the American people have been asked to do hard things, we’ve always risen to the challenge. … It takes leaders to call to our ‘better angels.’
“We are Americans, and there’s nothing we can’t do together. … We have to find the grace to see best in each other and face the future with courage. … The American people always have been great. We just have to have government as good as our people again. And we will.”
Trump, Pence and DeSantis
Trump has been aggressive in attacking DeSantis, whose similarly aggressive and sometimes controversial tactics as governor have moved him to the right of Trump on the political spectrum. PACs backing both candidates have launched numerous attack ads.
Trump and Pence have been alienated since Jan. 6, 2021, when Pence said he could not change the electoral process that confirmed that Joe Biden had been elected president. Trump spoke harshly about Pence, long a loyalist, and calls to “hang Mike Pence” were part of the message and imagery from the thousands of Trump backers who stormed the Capitol in a violent insurrection designed to overturn the 2020 election.
Pence sat for about seven hours in April to provide testimony before a federal grand jury looking into Trump’s actions on Jan. 6 and in his handling of top-secret federal documents.
A federal court had ordered that Pence cooperate with Special Prosecutor Jack Smith, although Pence and Trump both fought the subpoena Pence was served. It’s unclear when Smith might conclude his investigation.
“January 6 was a tragic day in the life of our nation,” Pence said during his announcement on Wednesday. “President Trump’s words were reckless and endangered my family and everyone at the Capitol. But the American people deserve to know that on that day, President Trump also demanded that I choose between him and the Constitution. Now voters will be faced with the same choice. I chose the Constitution, and I always will.”
The convention also provides opportunities for speeches by various officeholders and would-be candidates in the GOP realm.
That includes the three men with Greensboro ties who want the GOP nomination to replace term-limited Democrat Roy Cooper as governor – state Treasurer Dale Folwell of Winston-Salem/UNC-Greensboro; Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson, a Greensboro native and UNCG grad; and former U.S. Rep Mark Walker, a Greensboro resident and its former representative in Congress.
This convention is “about fundraising, voter turnout and attention,” elections expert Chris Cooper of Western Carolina University said in an email. “Voters and donors are motivated by the top of the ticket; the party certainly knows that and is acting accordingly.
“Headliner national candidates will also place the convention in the national media spotlight, which will draw more money and attention. People in Des Moines just aren’t going to be as interested in Dale Folwell as they are in Ron DeSantis.”