In Iowa, Pence Preaches Old-School Conservatism to a Dwindling Flock

Mike Pence sat on Wednesday in a cavernous machine shop that was humming with activity as he preached old-time Republican religion: the dangers of the swelling national debt, the need to overhaul Social Security and Medicare, the perils of price controls on prescription drugs and the necessity of projecting military might across the globe.

No more than two dozen Iowans had come to C & C Machining in Centerville to hear the last Republican vice president as he pursues his party’s nomination for president. And the ones who showed weren’t so sure how many G.O.P. voters still believed in a gospel that his former running mate, Donald J. Trump, has spent eight years rendering largely obsolete.

“The old conservative Republicanism, those are my ideals,” Art Kirchoff, 53, an insurance agency owner, said approvingly to explain why he would vote for Mr. Pence in the Iowa caucuses this January. He had come at the behest of the machine shop’s owner, Gaylon Cowan, a friend, and, Mr. Kirchoff conceded, he wasn’t sure how many of his kind are left in the party. “That’s a good question.”

Mr. Pence says often that there is no one more qualified to be the nominee — and more battle tested — than him, a former House member, former Indiana governor and former vice president. There is, of course, a former president in the race: Mr. Trump, the man Mr. Pence stood behind and supported for four tumultuous years. But when Mr. Trump asked his loyal vice president to violate his oath of office, Mr. Pence says, he stood by the Constitution.

By force of will, Mr. Pence grabbed the microphone at the first Republican primary debate this month more than anyone else onstage, speaking for 12 minutes and 37 seconds, much of that time devoted to his actions on Jan. 6, 2021, the day he certified his own defeat at the hands of Joseph R. Biden Jr. and Kamala Harris after a pro-Trump mob had ransacked the Capitol and called for his death. At the debate in Milwaukee, the former vice president stretched his airtime by demanding the other seven candidates onstage to his left and right attest to his righteousness.

“It was a fun night,” Mr. Pence said on Wednesday.

And by dint of his time in the White House, he holds real celebrity status on the hustings. On Thursday, at the Old Threshers Reunion, a sprawling fair and farm-equipment showcase in Mount Pleasant, Iowa, he was mobbed by well-wishers.

But then there was Jamison Plank, a 25-year-old pastor, who grabbed Mr. Pence’s hand and demanded to know whether he would vote for Mr. Trump if the former president was the nominee. Mr. Pence demurred, saying he was confident the question was moot, that Mr. Pence would win.

Mr. Plank was not.

“I’m worried that the Republican establishment is going to destroy Trump,” he said. “I appreciate Mike Pence. I appreciate his faith. I just don’t see him winning.”

The former vice president’s time in the spotlight at the debate did not lift his position in the polls, where he continues to languish in the low-single digits. He is far behind Mr. Trump, but also behind Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida and a political newcomer, Vivek Ramaswamy, whose position on the issues — and perhaps in national polling averages — seems to inspire Mr. Pence on the attack.

“He’s wrong on foreign policy. He’s wrong on American leadership in the world. He’s wrong on how we get this economy moving again,” Mr. Pence said on Wednesday of his 38-year-old rival, adding, “I’ve been in the room in the West Wing, and I can tell you, the president doesn’t get to decide what crises he faces.”

The crisis he was referring to was the debt and Mr. Ramaswamy’s refusal to grapple with the cost of Social Security and Medicare, entitlement programs groaning under the weight of the retiring Baby Boom generation. But Mr. Trump has said he too will not touch the popular social benefit programs for retirees, as has Mr. DeSantis.

And those three brawlers, who have elevated their battles with “deep state” bureaucrats, “left-wing” socialists and “globalist” hawks far above the green eyeshade concerns of federal budgeting, have for now captured the allegiance of 75 percent of Republican primary voters, leaving the more traditional Republicans in the race like Mr. Pence fighting over the crumbs.

“If they started listening to the message and not just the hoorah, maybe” traditional conservatism could rise again, Mr. Cowan, 53, said of Republican voters after Mr. Pence spoke at his factory.

Mr. Pence likes to say he was conservative before it was cool, a low-tax, small-government Republican willing to fight his own party. Mr. Pence’s positions have the same throwback feel as his pleated khakis, blue blazers and light-blue broadcloth shirts. In Iowa this week, Mr. Pence railed against the Biden administration’s landmark legislation to allow Medicare to negotiate prescription drug prices — the same policy Mr. Trump endorsed, though failed to achieve.

In a survey late last year by KFF, a health policy research organization, 89 percent of Democrats and 77 percent of Republicans said they favored the plank of the Inflation Reduction Act that authorizes negotiations.

His warnings against overspending come as companies like C & C brace for a huge infusion of new work funded by Mr. Biden’s infrastructure law, another achievement that the Trump-Pence administration promised but did not secure. Mr. Cowan said once repair and replacement orders started rolling in from the companies building new roads, bridges, tunnels and rail lines, “it’s going to help our business tremendously.”

On Thursday morning at Weaton Companies in Fairfield, Iowa, Cory Westphal, an executive at Dexter Laundry, an industrial washer and dryer maker, fretted that aggressive union negotiators could drive up wages and labor costs. Mr. Pence answered that he cut the corporate income tax rate to 15 percent, from 21 percent.

Beyond the issues is a more existential question dogging Mr. Pence’s candidacy: If a majority — or at least a strong plurality — of Republican primary voters believe the lie that the 2020 election was stolen, how can the man who certified it secure their support? Mr. Pence has tried to turn the liability of his certification into an asset, a profile in courage on the fateful day of Jan. 6, 2021.

It works for some.

“Everything he went through with Trump, I just admire that he did the right thing,” Julie Vantiger Hicks, 58, said after getting her picture with Mr. Pence at Threshers Reunion. “He’s an admirable man.”

But Mr. Pence was hardly outspoken among the few Republican leaders in the weeks and months before and after the attack on the Capitol who tried to dispel the conspiracy theories around the election that continue to divide the nation.

“My objective — once the violence was quelled, the Congress reconvened and finished our work under the Constitution of the United States, and after the president denounced the riot and committed to a peaceful transfer of power — was to see to that orderly transition,” Mr. Pence answered when asked if he could have done more to head off the division that he now faces.

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