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Mike Pence: Trump’s evangelist, emissary, and explainer in chief

Republican vice presidential candidate Mike Pence spoke Thursday during a campaign stop in Salt Lake City. Pence is trying to smooth over relations with those objecting to Donald Trump, hoping to bring them into the fold.
Republican vice presidential candidate Mike Pence spoke Thursday during a campaign stop in Salt Lake City. Pence is trying to smooth over relations with those objecting to Donald Trump, hoping to bring them into the fold.(Rick Bowmer/Associated Press)

DALTON, Ga. — When Mike Pence campaigned in Georgia last week, the Republican vice-presidential nominee carved out time for a private meeting with commentator Erick Erickson, a card-carrying member of the GOP’s Never Trump faction.

When Pence passed through Arizona last month, he paid a personal visit to another loud Donald Trump resister, Senator Jeff Flake, who had scolded Trump for his incendiary statements during a meeting between the presidential nominee and Republican senators.

Pence’s message to both was the same: Whatever your problems with Trump, the presidential election is a binary choice, and Trump is better than Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.

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As Pence barnstorms the country rallying voters and raising money, the Indiana governor simultaneously is waging another campaign out of public view. He is trying to personally persuade Republican elected officials, business executives and others who view Trump with trepidation or outright hostility to come aboard, or at least soften their objections.

So far, he has been able to tamp down some of the opposition — if not win many converts.

‘‘There are some of us who simply can’t go for the top of the ticket and are very concerned about the implications if we embrace this Trumpism in all its forms,’’ Flake said in an interview. ‘‘He’s not able to get some of us. But he’s giving it the old college try.’’

Seven weeks into his role on the national ticket, Pence has emerged as Trump’s evangelist, emissary, and explainer to exasperated Republicans. A governor and former House leader with deep establishment connections, Pence serves as a bridge between the GOP’s old order and the populist outsider campaign that has overtaken the party.

Huddling in hotel suites and private airport lounges, and often with his wife, Karen, by his side, Pence tries to assuage concerns about Trump’s character by relating his personal encounters with the Trump family. To erase doubts about Trump’s readiness, Pence lays out what their administration would accomplish on Day 1. And to calm worries about Trump’s electability, Pence describes their campaign as a historic and unstoppable movement.

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‘‘I see my role as just helping to tell the story,’’ Pence said in an interview last week aboard his campaign plane. ‘‘I’ve had a lot of those conversations. . . . I just like to share with people our belief that this good man would be a great president, and I just share the experience that we’ve had with them and their family.’’

Trump is not the sole beneficiary of Pence’s storytelling. Pence is helping himself, too, protecting his reputation by explaining to powerful Republicans who might look down on him for serving as Trump’s running mate why he has so eagerly done so. He also is cultivating and expanding his national network, which would give him an advantage over other Republicans if Trump loses and Pence seeks the presidential nomination in 2020.

Although Pence did not win over Flake or Erickson, he has made some establishment Republicans more comfortable.

‘‘I have had a number of people come up to me and tell me that they feel very good about this ticket because Mike is on it,’’ said Governor Pete Ricketts of Nebraska. ‘‘As traditional Republicans, and Donald Trump not being an orthodox Republican, they were concerned, but they believe that Mike brings that Midwestern stabilizing force.’’

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The reaction has been similar in Iowa, where Governor Terry Branstad recently showed Pence around the Iowa State Fair and introduced him to establishment donors. ‘‘Mike Pence is a good go-between,’’ Branstad said.

Republicans who refuse to back Trump have embraced Pence. Senator Mike Lee of Utah, who led a protest of Trump’s nomination at the Republican National Convention, invited Pence to Salt Lake City last Thursday to address his policy summit.

Last month in Aspen, Colo., Pence met privately with Governor Susana Martinez of New Mexico, the nation’s first Latina governor, whom Trump attacked this year after she declined to support him. The visit, at the sidelines of a Republican Governors Association retreat, was described by Pence aides as productive, although Martinez, the RGA’s chairwoman, has yet to formally endorse Trump. Her spokesman did not respond to multiple requests for an interview.

A few hours later, however, Pence jetted to Albuquerque and awkwardly saw diplomacy’s limits. He was booed by supporters when he praised Martinez as a ‘‘dear friend’’ and ‘‘great governor’’ at a campaign rally.

Since the rocky rollout of his selection by Trump, Pence has quickly found his place in Trump’s orbit and settled into his own rhythms as a campaigner. The two men talk daily, often in early morning or late-night check-in calls.

‘‘He’s always very interested in where we were, what the response was from people,’’ Pence said. ‘‘ . . . I think he’s as much interested in what my sense is of the enthusiasm and just what we’re hearing and seeing.’’

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In an interview last month, Trump described his relationship with Pence as ‘‘phenomenal’’ and ‘‘beyond good.’’

There is virtually no micromanaging of Pence by Trump or his top aides, in part because the Trump campaign is often preoccupied putting out its own fires. Pence is effectively running his own campaign, traveling where he sees fit and delivering a stump speech he crafted with his longtime advisers.

Trump campaign officials have so much faith in Pence that their instructions to him are to ‘‘ask for forgiveness, not permission,’’ said Trump campaign manager Kellyanne Conway, who has advised Pence for years.

‘‘Pence has been perfection,’’ Conway said. ‘‘He’s unflappable, he’s practiced, he’s polished, yet he comes across as authentic.’’ Describing Pence’s independence within the campaign, she added, ‘‘He’s not just Donald Trump’s running mate. He’s free to be Governor Pence and Congressman Pence, to draw upon all of his insights in his life.’’

This is a departure from traditional campaigns, in which the presidential nominee and his or her team exert tight control over the vice-presidential nominee. Senator Timothy Kaine, Democrat of Virginia, sticks to talking points and makes appearances that are scripted and choreographed at Clinton headquarters to complement Clinton’s message.

Still, Pence again and again has done his duty defending Trump. He is routinely asked in media interviews to respond to Trump’s latest controversy, and he generally does so calmly and without incident. ‘‘Mike is a consummate team player,’’ said Marc Short, a senior Pence adviser.

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He does often strain to change the subject, howevever. On NBC’s ‘‘Meet the Press’’ on Sunday, he struggled to explain Trump’s mass-deportation proposals and refused to get into specifics. He also said he would release his tax returns within ‘‘the next week,’’ but defended Trump’s decision not to do so until after an audit was complete — which could be after the election.

Voters have confronted Pence with some of the conspiracy theories that surround Trump’s campaign, such as a young man at a town-hall meeting here in Dalton who asked Pence about unfounded claims of Clinton’s ‘‘deteriorating health.’’ Pence responded: ‘‘I’m less concerned about her bad health than I am about her bad ideas.’’

When a woman explained her ‘‘grave fear’’ that the election would be ‘‘rigged,’’ as Trump has often suggested, Pence replied, ‘‘I think your skepticism is well founded, but the response ought to be action’’ to help turn out more voters for Trump.

Asked in the interview how he navigates Trump’s controversies, Pence said, ‘‘They pop up . . . . But I really try to stay focused on talking about the issues that people are really concerned about.’’ He cited the economy, national security and illegal immigration.

‘‘He’s very even-keel. He doesn’t get shook up or excited,’’ Branstad said of Pence. ‘‘I think he’s helping reassure some people that maybe had some doubts about an unconventional candidate.’’

But some of Pence’s friends voiced sympathy for his role as Trump’s explainer.

‘‘It’s a difficult job and I know that he’s a different type of person than Donald Trump,’’ Flake said. ‘‘He’s often left to explain what Donald Trump may have meant, and he’s obviously very diplomatic. He needs to be. He’s loyal to a fault.’’

Although Trump is a ratings-proven performer thanks to his years on reality television, Pence is a more traditional political communicator. His presentation is more crisp and focused, and his attacks on Clinton are sharper, if less cunning, than Trump’s.

In his speeches, Pence praises Trump as a fun-loving and fearless fighter. ‘‘He’s the genuine article,’’ Pence said in Dalton. ‘‘Shoots straight from the hip. . . . When he does his talking, he doesn’t go tip-toeing around those thousands of rules of political correctness.’’

Pence employs self-deprecating humor in contrasting himself with Trump: ‘‘Other than a whole bunch of zeroes, we really have a lot in common. I mean a bunch of zeroes.’’

He also reliably gets laughs when he describes joining the ticket: ‘‘Late night, 11 o’clock in the governor’s residence, the telephone rang and I heard that familiar voice on the phone and he said, ‘Mike, it’s gonna be great!’ ”

Pence’s routine has won the boss’s approval. Trump tells his aides that picking Pence was ‘‘the best move I’ve made.’’

‘‘He’s never going to outshine — and I say that in a very respectful way — take the stage away from the main player here,’’ former Texas governor and Republican presidential candidate Rick Perry said of Pence. ‘‘People see him as a thoughtful, solid, straight-shooter.’’

The spotlight on Trump is so disproportionately bright that Pence is unrecognizable to many Americans. Taking his entourage and press corps to watch him get his hair cut recently in Pennsylvania, Pence got up from the chair to shake his barber’s hand, and the man said, ‘‘Your name was — ?’’

‘‘Mike Pence,’’ the candidate replied. ‘‘I’m the governor of Indiana, and I’m running for vice president of the United States.’’