RENO, Nev. (AP) — It’s become a familiar routine for Mike Pence.
Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump says something headline-grabbing, dubious or outright false, and his mild-mannered running mate sets out to refashion the boss’s argument. It’s happening again this week with the campaign’s most fundamental question: whether Trump would accept the legitimacy of election results that make Democrat Hillary Clinton president-elect.
Finding the right balance will prove critical for the Indiana governor in this election and beyond. His aim for the next few weeks is to rally wary Republicans, from evangelical Christians to fiscal hawks, without alienating Trump’s core supporters who distrust the party establishment that Pence still calls home.
And should Trump lose, Pence’s delicate, sometimes-impossible dance could leave him as one of the few high-profile Republicans with credibility across competing strands of a fractured party — a position he could occupy with an eye toward the 2020 election.
For now, the Indiana governor must translate Trump’s repeated claims that the electoral system is rigged against him –unsubstantiated statements that leave Republican and Democrats alike fearful that the GOP nominee might undermine a President-elect Clinton by flouting the American tradition of graceful concessions by losing candidates.
On NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Sunday, Pence explained that Trump was talking about media bias against Trump, not massive voting fraud. “We absolutely will accept the result of the election,” he said.
Trump undercut Pence’s first point almost immediately, tweeting that there was rigging at polling places. The second point he rejected in a more explosive manner at Wednesday’s debate.
Moderator Chris Wallace cited Pence’s comments among others in asking Trump if he’d accept the election results. Trump refused. “I will keep you in suspense,” he said.
By the next day, Pence had ditched the unequivocal language he had used on Sunday. Speaking in Nevada, he tried to brush off the outrage over Trump’s comments as a misunderstanding driven by a rat-pack media fixated on “one sentence.”
He also noted that Trump earlier in the day had said he would accept a clear election result, adding “we also reserve the right to contest or file a legal challenge in the case of questionable results.”
That’s been Pence’s motif: push back at a narrative, mollify core supporters and give Trump and Pence aides just enough to cover to deny any daylight between the two.
But even when Trump and Pence are in general agreement, there are differences in scale and approach.
Pence will say: “Don’t kid yourself, voter fraud is real” and “takes place in pockets and polling places around the country.” It’s a standard conservative applause line.
But he hasn’t gone as far as Trump, who has bemoaned “large-scale voter fraud” — a disproven assertion — and urged his nearly all-white audiences to monitor voting sites in “other communities” so the election isn’t “stolen.” It’s a call-to-action some minorities interpret as voter intimidation.
Pence tells supporters to “respectfully participate” in safeguarding a fair election. In Colorado this week, he urged Trump supporters to volunteer as official poll watchers, a long-standing component of U.S. elections sustained by both major parties. It was a noticeable, if subtle departure from Trump’s tacit invitation for freelance, vigilante poll monitoring.
Sometimes, it’s harder for Pence to paper over differences, and often he ignores uncomfortable subjects or denies Trump said something at all.
An outspoken Christian, Pence condemned Trump’s sexually predatory comments about women revealed in a 2005 recording. But he batted down rumors that he considered leaving the ticket and repeated Trump’s explanation the tape was “locker-room talk” and not a representation of how he actually treats women. Now, after 10 women have publicly accused Trump of unwanted advances or sexual assault, Pence doesn’t address the issue at all. Trump has denied the accusations.
In the lone vice presidential debate, Pence said the U.S. should be ready to bomb military targets under the command of Syrian President Bashar Assad if his regime and Russia continue airstrikes that the U.S. blames for civilian deaths. Trump, during the second presidential debate, said he and Pence “haven’t spoken” about Syria “and “I disagree.” Pence answered the split by accusing moderator Martha Raddatz of mischaracterizing his position when questioning Trump. She had quoted him verbatim.
Several other times during the vice presidential debate, Pence denied Trump’s statements altogether, from a ban on Muslim immigration to the United States, to creating a “deportation task force” for removing foreign residents who are in the U.S. illegally.
Pence and his aides won’t discuss Pence’s balancing act in terms other than supporting the GOP ticket. But Democrats happily try to knock Pence off his tightrope. Clinton’s campaign almost immediately cut a video montage of Pence’s debate denials.
Clinton herself used Pence for grist Thursday at the Al Smith charity dinner in New York, where both candidates spoke.
“Donald,” she said, “after listening to your speech, I will also enjoy listening to Mike Pence deny that you ever gave it.”
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