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John Krull commentary: Mike Pence, the politician who won’t stay down

It’s always a mistake to write off Mike Pence.

People find it easy to underestimate the former vice president, Indiana governor and U.S. congressman. His weakness for hyperbole and his almost puppyish desire in times of ascendancy to please his base encourage people to see Pence as little more than an empty suit, a rightwing manque more accustomed to striking poses than blows.

That reading is fair neither to Pence nor the truth.

While it is true that the former vice president often does not handle success well, the reality is that he is at his best in times of adversity. The man has first-rate political survival skills.

Time and again, he has been on the verge of being counted out, only to pull himself back up and lean back against the ropes while he cleared his head. Then he set his feet and came out swinging again.

His first two runs for Congress were disasters—worse than that, in fact. He not only lost but made himself an object of national ridicule by taking his own campaign funds for living expenses and launching ads that were both nasty and amateurish.

The portrait of Pence that emerged from those early races was that of a partisan attack dog, one just this side of rabid.

But then he reinvented himself. He penned a piece in which he expressed regret for his churlish conduct and pledged he never would engage in negative campaigning again.

It was a promise Pence ultimately did not keep, but it bought him a new lease on life. He built a career as a radio talk show host, one in which he presented himself as the easygoing second coming of Ronald Reagan.

Pence liked to say he was “conservative but not angry about it.”

When he had another shot at a seat in Congress in 2000, he took it and won. Despite some occasional gaffes—comparing a war zone to an Indiana farmers’ market and calling the Supreme Court decision upholding Obamacare the Republican Party’s 9/11—Pence moved steadily ahead.

Some conservatives saw him as a presidential prospect in 2012.

He and his inner circle, though, saw that having some executive experience would enhance his chances of making it to the Oval Office. So, he ran for governor instead. He won.

Trouble hit again.

His tone-deaf and exceptionally maladroit handling of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act debacle turned both him and the state into national jokes. As he prepared to run for re-election, the smart money saw him as an almost-certain loser.

But he escaped disaster once more.

When Donald Trump offered him a spot on the GOP national ticket in 2016, Pence seized the lifeline.

Once installed as vice president, Pence again displayed his almost supernatural survival skills. He demonstrated a slavish loyalty to Trump in public but always seemed to be out of the room and out of the loop when the then president decided to test or break the law.

When Trump labored to overturn the 2020 election, Pence found the will to resist him. In the process, he began to alter, once again, how the public sees him. He started to shake off the image of being nothing more than a Trump lapdog or charity case.

Since then, Pence has taken some decisive steps to separate himself from Trump.

The former vice president told conservative audiences that Trump was wrong about the 2020 election and about cozying up to and coddling Russian autocrat Vladimir Putin. Pence also said there was no room in the GOP for Putin apologists and that it was a mistake to try to keep relitigating the last election rather than point to the future.

Pence’s jousting with his former boss matters.

He and Trump are sparring over both the heart and the future of the Republican Party.

Can Pence win?

Conventional wisdom says no.

But Mike Pence has had his back to the wall before.

He’s still here—and still swinging.

That’s why the people who count him out do so at their own peril.

John Krull is director of Franklin College’s Pulliam School of Journalism and publisher of TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.