MILWAUKEE, Wis. (AP) — It's been one potentially disastrous comment after another from Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump — but you wouldn't know it watching his running mate.
Indiana Gov. Mike Pence is the Trump campaign's happy warrior, delighting in telling cheering audiences that Trump won't "tiptoe around" the rules of political correctness. He's deliberately avoided or, when pressed, tried to do damage control on most of Trump's recent eyebrow-raising remarks.
"The media's talking today about another controversy over semantics," Pence told a crowd last Thursday in La Crosse, Wisconsin, following a spate of campaign coverage about Trump's claim that President Barack Obama is "the founder of ISIS," an acronym for the Islamic State extremist group.
Part sunny sidekick, part Trump translator, Pence is betting his political future on endearing himself to the slice of Republican primary voters who propelled the businessman to the GOP nomination. At the same time, he's trying to stay true to the conservative values he's held since former President Ronald Reagan's "morning in America" optimism lured the one-time Democrat over to the Republican Party in the 1980s.
It's a strategy with risks.
"He is walking a tight rope and there's no safety net," said Republican Indiana state Rep. Dave Ober, who is both a vocal Pence supporter and outspoken in his distaste for Trump. "He's had to put together a message of their hopes and dreams for the country if they are elected, while also trying to Band-Aid over some of the mistakes that are being made by Donald at the top of the ticket."
Over the last year-and-a-half, Pence's approval rating as Indiana's governor sunk, largely due to his support for conservative social issues which drew negative attention to the state. His selection as Trump's running mate plucked him away from a difficult re-election he had no assurance of winning. Now, should Trump lose the White House, Pence will likely be seen favorably by the businessman's most faithful supporters who are expected to be a key voting bloc in the 2020 GOP primary. He plays directly to them on the stump.
"(Trump's) a fighter, he's a winner, and until recently it seemed like he was out there fighting all on his own," Pence said, punctuating each of the last four words for emphasis, crafting himself as the man who rescued Trump from walking down a lonely road.
GOP strategist and former Pence spokesman Robert Vane says it's no surprise Pence is devoutly on-message because the "the first rule of being a VP candidate is 'do no harm.'"
"Donald Trump chose Mike Pence based on a series of strengths," Vane said. "And Gov. Pence is famous for his message discipline."
Still, there are times where the two are on different pages.
Trump, for example, has refused to publicly release his taxes, bucking a longstanding tradition. Pence ducked the issue until his Democratic vice presidential rival Sen. Tim Kaine, of Virginia, last week released years' worth of tax records. Now Pence has changed tack, suggesting in an interview with WABC in New York that his own taxes could soon be released and adding they would be a "a quick read."
When news anchors pressed Pence last week about Trump's "founder of ISIS" comments, and remarks that "Second Amendment people" — people advocating for the right to carry guns — could do something to protest Hillary Clinton's Supreme Court selection, Pence did his best to downplay or rationalize both controversies.
"Of course not, no," he told a Philadelphia reporter when asked whether Trump's Second Amendment remarks sought to incite violence. "Donald Trump is urging people around this country to act in a manner consistent with their convictions in the course of this election, and people who cherish the Second Amendment have a very clear choice in this election."
The two men talk strategy almost daily, but Pence is the far more disciplined. In his roughly 30-minute stump speech, Pence defends his new boss, brushes over the latest Trump-related news item, then trains his sights squarely on Clinton, a target Trump hasn't seemed able to stay on.
But while Pence is more on-message, few voters are around to see it. Pence attracted crowds of less than 300 last week at stops in Iowa, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, compared to the thousands who show up to see Trump daily.
Curt Smith, a longtime friend and former GOP congressional aide who now runs the conservative Indiana Family Institute think tank, says Pence has performed well, despite the challenges of being Trump's running mate.
"If he handles himself well, if he continues to make a valuable contribution to the ticket, his future will take care of itself and he will be a top ticket contender," Smith said.
Indeed, Pence is using Midwestern modesty to make his support for Trump crystal clear.
As a rowdy Milwaukee crowd began chanting, "Pence, Pence, Pence," at a Thursday night rally, the Indiana governor offered a different suggestion: "Let's try Trump, Trump, Trump!"
Slodysko reported from Indianapolis.
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