CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa – Mike Pence is best known as Donald Trump’s vice president, someone who, apart from one dramatic rejection of his boss ’s effort to overturn their 2020 election defeat, served as a steadfastly loyal, mostly uncontroversial No. 2 during his four years in the White House.
But as Pence approaches a likely 2024 run for president, he’s hoping to project the record of a conservative fighter, opening up to audiences about the parts of his career before he served as Trump’s vice president -- his 12 years as a congressman and four years as Indiana governor.
While traveling the country and visiting early nominating states such as Iowa, Pence doesn't hide his time in the former president's White House. But the new emphasis on his earlier years in politics marks an effort to flesh out his profile as he moves closer to taking on Trump himself. He wants to make sure voters know there's a lot more to him.
“I'm well known but not known well,” he said in an interview this week.
“If we choose to run,” he said, “we’ll have ample opportunity to show who we are.” That was after he met with eastern Iowa Republican activists in Cedar Rapids. He notes “the fact that I fought for conservative principles against leaders of my own party when I was a member of Congress, the fact that we advanced a strong conservative agenda as governor.”
During political stops, Pence leads with his role boosting Trump's policy agenda, which remains popular among Republicans, even as he says the country seeks “new leadership.” During stops Wednesday in the Des Moines area and Cedar Rapids, Pence tied his own record as a rising Indiana U.S. House member and later as Indiana governor to today's Republican priorities.
He reached back to his six terms as an ambitious House member to note his opposition to Medicare expansion to provide prescription drugs, calling it an unaffordable entitlement though it was supported by President George W. Bush and most Republican members.
That fits with Pence's call for overhauling entitlement programs for younger adults. Without that change, Pence said during a stop at the Westside Conservative Club breakfast in suburban Des Moines, “our country could be facing, in 30 years, the largest debt the world has ever known.”
Later in Cedar Rapids, he praised Republican Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds for signing an expansive school choice measure, while noting that, as a governor himself, he doubled Indiana's charter school program. Education has taken on new political resonance in recent years, with conservative parents seeking more control over policy, notably related to race teaching and gender.
The new tack of building out his political biography underscores what some Iowa Republicans say is a liability for Pence in a party still dominated by the former president.
“One thing that might work against him is Trump loyalists probably don’t like the fact that he came to some conflict with the president,” said Arlan Ecklund, a former GOP chair in conservative Crawford County, Iowa, who says he likes Pence. “And on the other hand, some who aren’t Trump loyalists maybe see him as a Trump loyalist."
Barbara Schoeben, who attended a Pence event in Cedar Rapids on Wednesday, didn't know he was among the first in Congress to seek eliminating federal funding for Planned Parenthood, a regular target of abortion rights opponents. Likewise, she was unfamiliar with Indiana's expansion of adoption access, a priority for abortion rights opponents like Pence, during his governorship.
“I like him and completely connect with his deep feelings about faith,” said Schoeben, a 64-year-old graphic designer. “I had hoped to hear more from him about his record, and I was glad I did.”
Still, Pence finds himself in a difficult position even before he enters the race.
He is viewed unfavorably by 26% of Republicans in Iowa, according to a Des Moines Register/Mediacom Iowa Poll taken in early March. That's a higher unfavorable rating than Trump and former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley, who have already announced their bids, and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who is expected to jump into the race.
The findings are similar to the party’s feelings nationally about Pence. A Quinnipiac University poll taken last month showed 32% of Republicans nationwide viewed him unfavorably — worse than Trump, DeSantis and Haley.
Pence on Wednesday dismissed the poll findings but acknowledged he had work to do providing the full picture of his career to voters.
“I think what’s been encouraging to me over the last six months, since my book came out and the opportunity to really be out speaking about our background, our experience, our family and my career long before I was vice president,” he said in the interview, “I’ve come to the conclusion I’m well known, but not known well.”
Wednesday's visit was Pence's eighth trip to Iowa since the 2020 election. Republican activists in the state describe him as a respected social conservative who perhaps lacks the magnetism of some of his potential rivals.
“People seem to highly respect him and know that he's a good man," said Jeanita McNulty, county Republican chair in Scott County, an eastern Iowa mini-metro area along the Mississippi River.
Tony Shepherd, who manages a popular steak restaurant near the Des Moines airport, attended the breakfast event in the western suburbs and said Pence comes across “as very sincere.”
“He has a very reassuring presence,” said Shepherd, 47, of Ankeny. “I'm just not seeing much charisma.”
There are also those who see Pence's Trump years as inseparable, no matter how he presents himself.
Ann Trimble Ray, a veteran Republican activist from conservative northwest Iowa, says Pence's years serving under Trump, whom she never supported, disqualify him from her support in the state's leadoff presidential caucuses.
“My view of Pence is that it’s guilt by association — a big issue for the never-Trumpers,” said Trimble Ray, a longtime ally of former U.S. Rep. Steve King.
Such impressions appear to have little influence on Pence's deliberations.
More than a decade ago, he had weighed running for president, but “I just wasn't ready," he said in the interview.
“I stood next to the job for four years. I purposed to be ready every day for four years," Pence said. "And I know if, by virtue of the will of the American people and God's grace, I ever have that position in the future, I'd be ready to serve.”