By James Oliphant
(Reuters) - Former Vice President Mike Pence on Wednesday urged his fellow Republicans to reject the “siren song” of populist policies espoused by former President Donald Trump in favor of traditional conservative principles, arguing the future of their party, and the nation, are on the line.
At a speech at St. Anselm College in Manchester, New Hampshire, Pence warned that if his party’s voters continue to embrace what he called “unmoored” polices based on “personal grievances,” the Republican Party “we’ve long known will cease to exist. And the fate of American freedom will be in doubt.”
Pence barely mentioned Trump by name in his remarks, but it was clear that the former president and his seemingly unshakable base of followers lay at the heart of his critique.
The speech comes at a time when the Republican Party is riven by a divide between its Trump-centric populist base and its “America First” approach and its more traditional, establishment-driven wing epitomized by Pence and former presidential candidates such as Mitt Romney who favor an aggressive foreign policy and free-market economics. Polls show that, so far, Trump’s forces have the edge.
Despite having served as vice president during Trump’s presidency, Pence held himself out as a stark contrast to Trump, arguing that he, not his one-time boss, is a “proven conservative.”
Pence is vying with Trump to become the Republican 2024 presidential nominee, but he remains stuck in the low single digits in national polling, while the former president is far and away the front-runner in the race.
Trump and other populist Republicans “would abandon American leadership on the world stage” and “blatantly erode our constitutional norms,” Pence said.
Jason Miller, a Trump spokesperson, said Pence's view of the party is out of date. "The conservative movement and the Republican Party have changed for the better, and nobody wants it to go back to the way it was before,” he said.
Pence has been a staunch defender of U.S. support of Ukraine in its war against Russia, a policy that several of his rivals for the nomination have questioned. He has also criticized Trump for the former president’s efforts to overturn the 2020 election.
The speech in New Hampshire, which holds the party’s second nominating contest next year, was the latest in Pence’s attempts to differentiate himself not only from Trump, but from other candidates who embrace similar populist rhetoric such as Florida Governor Ron DeSantis and entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy.
As the campaign has unfolded, Pence has increasingly portrayed himself as an inheritor of former President Ronald Reagan’s conservative mantle, arguing for a vigorous national defense and free-market economic policies.
Pence's weak support among Republican voters, however, suggests many Republicans have largely tuned him out. Moreover, many of Trump’s supporters have condemned his role in certifying the results of the 2020 election won by Democratic President Joe Biden.
That makes Pence a poor messenger to sound a clarion call for the party to return to its conservative roots, said David Darmofal, a professor of political science at the University of South Carolina.
Chris Stirewalt, a political analyst with the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank in Washington, said Pence’s remarks were aimed at Republican voters who are considering other more establishment-oriented candidates such as former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley and U.S. Senator Tim Scott.
“Mike Pence is trying to lead, in a way, a populist movement of his own” against Trump and his base, Stirewalt said.
(Reporting by James Oliphant; Editing by Ross Colvin and Daniel Wallis)