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Pence, newly burnished by Jan. 6 hearings, pressing ahead with presidential ambitions

WASHINGTON — As campaign storylines go, it would normally seem like an express ticket to the White House: a dutiful, squeaky-clean former vice-president putting his life on the line to rescue American democracy from a despotic ex-boss.
Two of the central characters in America’s January 6 drama are back in the national capital — both of them with presidential ambitions. Vice President Mike Pence, right, listens as President Donald Trump, left, makes a statement from the briefing room at the White House in Washington, Tuesday, Nov. 24, 2020. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

WASHINGTON — As campaign storylines go, it would normally seem like an express ticket to the White House: a dutiful, squeaky-clean former vice-president putting his life on the line to rescue American democracy from a despotic ex-boss. 

Of course, there's nothing remotely normal about U.S. politics these days. 

Mike Pence, Donald Trump's long-suffering second in command, rarely says much about what happened on Jan. 6, 2021. And he doesn't often invoke the name of the man whose supporters ran amok on Capitol Hill that day, some of them out for vice-presidential blood. 

Despite that close call, or perhaps because of it, the pious, deferential former Indiana governor and congressman seems as determined as ever to contest the Republican nomination for president, even though the odds are stacked against him.

"I don't know that the president and I differ on issues. But we may differ on focus," Pence said Tuesday, choosing his words carefully, as he answered student questions following a campaign-style speech at a conservative youth conference in D.C.

"I truly do believe that elections are about the future, and that it's absolutely essential at a time when so many Americans are hurting, so many families are struggling, that we don't give way to the temptation to look back."

The "freedom agenda" Pence laid out Tuesday did indeed bear striking similarity to some of Trump's favourite talking points, including waging war against progressive "woke culture," defending and enhancing gun rights and defending freedom of speech. 

He lingered on the subject of abortion, hailing the Supreme Court's decision to consign Roe v. Wade to the "trash heap of history" and vowing to take the fight to every state in the union in an effort to make the procedure illegal across the country. 

"Save the babies," he said, "and we'll save America."

One other area Pence and Trump two seem to have in common: though neither will confirm it, both seem to want to be commander-in-chief in 2025. 

They briefly re-entered each other's orbits Tuesday, with the former president returning to the U.S. capital for the first time since he grudgingly surrendered the Oval Office to President Joe Biden last year, ending the most turbulent transition period in modern American history.   

Trump was the main attraction at the America First Summit, a gathering of like-minded conservatives hosted by the America First Policy Institute, a think tank that has become a receptacle for his most prominent Washington loyalists. 

He laid out a scorched-earth vision of law and order that included death sentences for drug dealers, permanent tent cities to rid urban areas of homeless encampments, a vow to send the National Guard into Democrat-run states, and banning transgender athletes from women's sports, an ad lib that earned the lustiest ovation of the afternoon.

He also promised a fresh attack on the "deep state" bureaucracy with a resurrected Schedule F, an executive order that would equip him with the power to purge the civil service of employees deemed "corrupt, incompetent or unnecessary." 

He made no mention of Pence, and Jan. 6 only in passing as he recited a familiar list of unjust persecutions he believes he was made to suffer at the hands of Democrats on Capitol Hill. 

The second-loudest cheers came when he came close to confirming a presidential run in 2024.   

"There's an expression: 'The best day of your life is the day before you run for president.' Did you ever hear that? I laughed at it; I said, 'Hmm, that may be true, actually,'" Trump said. 

"But I'm doing it for America. And it's my honour to do it. It's my great, great honour to do. Because if I don't, our nation is doomed to become another Venezuela or become another Soviet Union. That's where we're headed." 

With Trump still widely seen as the presumptive Republican nominee, notwithstanding polls that suggest growing support for Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, Pence would be hard-pressed to win over those who continue to support the former president. 

But his reputation has been burnished by the congressional committee examining the Capitol Hill riots, with some former Trump officials and committee members hailing him for his bravery in defying presidential demands to reject the results of the 2020 vote.

"I think the vice-president did the right thing, I think he did the courageous thing," former White House counsel Pat Cipollone told the committee.

"I think he did a great service to this country, and I think I suggested to somebody that he should be given the Presidential Medal of Freedom for his actions."

Pence has largely steered clear of talking about the riots, making only passing reference Tuesday to a "tragic day" in U.S. history but choosing instead to focus on what he described as the path forward for Republicans in the November midterms.

"Some people may choose to focus on the past. But elections are about the future," he said. 

"In 2022, the American people will decide whether their children and grandchildren will stand tall as citizens of the freest nation on earth, or whether they'll be forced to live in the economic, moral and spiritual decline of socialism."

From a Canadian perspective, America's public image may be difficult to restore, regardless of who wins the Republican nomination or the presidential contest in 2024, a new poll suggests. 

The online survey, conducted July 8-10 by Leger for the Association for Canadian Studies, asked respondents about the countries they consider the world's most powerful, and how that ranking might change 10 years from now.

A slim majority of the poll's 1,764 respondents — 53 per cent — placed the U.S. at the top of the list, followed by China at 40 per cent. Those surveyed said they expect a reversal in 2032: only 38 per cent chose the U.S., behind China with 54 per cent. 

Online surveys cannot be assigned a margin of error because they do not randomly sample the population.

"There are clearly some mixed feelings among Canadians about the evolving influence of the U.S. on the world stage," said the association's president, Jack Jedwab.

Despite everything, Trump remains a real factor, while Biden's tenure in the White House has had little to no effect on existential issues that resonate strongly in Canada — things like guns, abortion and inflation, Jedwab said. 

"Even with Biden in the Oval Office, Canadians still see the considerable influence of Republican thinking on American society." 

This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 26, 2022.

James McCarten, The Canadian Press