“In many ways, it’s the basis of the Nikki Haley chatter: Does Trump really need him and how much of this is just Pence padding his own run?” LoBianco noted, referring to speculation about Trump’s rumored consideration of a plan to replace Pence with a woman like Haley on his 2020 ticket.
Campaign officials say Pence is playing a crucial role whenever he drops into Midwestern battleground states for more intimate events with voters. Whereas Trump plays to his base when he takes the stage at his rallies — broadsiding critics with coarse language and diving headfirst into the most sensitive cultural issues — campaign officials say Pence focuses on easing prospective Trump voters into supporting the president even if they abhor his personality. In a race that is likely to be fought on the margins in the Rust Belt, where suburban women and union workers remain deeply skeptical of Trump, the vice president’s current deployment strategy could work for 2020, while also benefiting Pence’s long-term ambitions.
There are other clues that indicate Pence is thinking of what a successful presidential campaign might look like in a post-MAGA landscape. Like Trump, he has formed a close circle of loyal advisers inside and outside the White House, who often work to insulate Pence from controversy whenever the president does something that sets Washington ablaze. He leans heavily on his former chief of staff Nick Ayers, his gubernatorial campaign manager Marty Obst, Club for Growth president David McIntosh, and his current chief of staff Marc Short, according to a person close to Pence.
“They basically try to keep him clean from any of the day-to-day messes that are happening,” the person said. “That’s part of why he travels so much and why he’s glad to do these daylong bus tours, which get him out of D.C. and in front of the same voters he will need if he runs for president in the near future.”
Pence has also worked to bolster his policy credentials, focusing on trade and China, two issues that helped carry Trump to victory in 2016. The topics have resonated with working-class populations outside the typical Republican base. Once Trump finalized a trade deal with Mexico and Canada, Pence took up the task of selling it to voters and whipping votes to ensure its passage in the House last month. And twice in the last year-and-a-half, the vice president has delivered major speeches on China in which he excoriated not only Beijing’s trade practices, but also its human rights abuses, a subject the president often side-steps.
“Nothing in the past year has put on display the Chinese Communist Party’s antipathy to liberty so much as the unrest in Hong Kong,” Pence said during an October lecture. “Beijing has increased its interventions in Hong Kong and engaged in actions to curtail the rights and liberties of its people.”
A second person close to Pence recalled a conversation in mid-2018 in which the vice president asked his advisers to compile a policy portfolio that would set him apart from other Republicans who are often mentioned as possible successors to Trump — including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Haley, the former governor of South Carolina and U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.