COLUMBIA, S.C. – In his first public address since the end of the Trump administration, former Vice President Mike Pence on Thursday put down a marker for a potential return to elected office, telling an audience in early-voting South Carolina that he will use the coming months “pushing back on the liberal agenda" he says is wrong for the country.
“We've got to guard our values ... by offering a positive agenda to the American people, grounded in our highest ideals,” Pence told an audience of several hundred at a Columbia dinner sponsored by a conservative Christian nonprofit that lobbies for what it considers to be “biblical values,” such as heterosexual marriage. “Now, over the coming months, I'll have more to say about all of that.”
The choice of South Carolina for Pence's post-administration debut has definite political overtones, helping him develop exposure for a potential 2024 presidential bid. The state holds the first presidential primaries in the South, and candidates of both major parties typically spend more than a year in the state ahead of those votes, introducing themselves and trying to secure support.
Republican candidates use South Carolina as a proving ground to test their anti-abortion-rights mettle. Thursday's event, hosted by Palmetto Family Council, also gave Pence a backdrop for some of the issues for which he long advocated as an Indiana congressman-turned-governor, such as restrictions on abortion and support for the overturn of Roe v. Wade. Palmetto Family most recently helped push through a ban on most South Carolina abortions, a law now being challenged in federal court.
“We will stand with the right of every American, of every faith, to live, to work, to speak and to worship according to the dictates of their conscience," Pence said.
Pence, who since leaving office has been doing work with the Heritage Foundation and Young America’s Foundation, has not indicated if he plans a future run. As vice president, he made numerous trips to South Carolina, meeting several times with Gov. Henry McMaster for coronavirus-related forums and campaigning in the state for U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham and U.S. Rep. Nancy Mace.
But the question is whether Pence's former boss still looms large for the possible Republican field. Former President Donald Trump has not explicitly stated his plans but has teased a possible bid. On Thursday morning, asked on Fox Business about running in 2024, Trump said he’s “100%” thinking about it and would even possibly consider Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis as his running mate.
Earlier this month, another possible GOP contender, former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, said when asked about 2024 by The Associated Press that she would stand down if Trump opted to run again. Former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has launched an aggressive schedule, visiting states that will play a pivotal role in the 2024 primaries and signing a contract with Fox News Channel. DeSantis has been courting donors, including in Trump’s backyard, with a prominent speaking slot before the former president at a GOP fundraising retreat dinner this month at Mar-a-Lago, the Florida resort where Trump now lives.
Earlier Thursday, South Carolina Democratic Chair Trav Robertson said Pence was coming to the state to "try and salvage his relationship” with Trump supporters irked that Pence didn't support efforts to block certification of the 2020 presidential election.
On Thursday, Pence promised to reveal more of his ideas soon, promising that he would be challenging the Biden administration's “avalanche of liberal policies” as he ramps up speaking engagements around the country.
“We have the winning agenda,” Pence told Thursday's crowd. “And now it's incumbent upon us to take that winning agenda to the American people.”
Associated Press writer Jill Colvin in Washington contributed to this report.
Meg Kinnard can be reached at http://twitter.com/MegKinnardAP.