On the bus with Mike Pence: Road may be bumpy, but the candidate sees things clearly

Susan Page
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JOHNSTOWN, Pa. — The campaign bus carrying Mike Pence down a two-lane highway in rural Pennsylvania on Thursday is rocking so wildly from side to side that the collection of news clips on the desk goes flying and Pence's 23-year-old daughter is getting car-sick.

Mike Pence, walking with daughter Charlotte, gives the thumbs-up to a group of supporters waving in the distance as he toured the Gettysburg battlefield.

Trump Force One this is not.

Pence offers a contrast with his running mate in ways that go well beyond this day's modes of transportation. For one, the Indiana governor is measured and self-effacing — "Call me Mike," he tells volunteers working at the Franklin County GOP phone bank when he drops by — while Trump is brash and boastful.

"He's a bigger-than-life personality; he's charismatic," Pence said in an interview with USA TODAY's Capital Download, then adds with a laugh, "And then there's me."

Capital Download - Conversations with Washington's biggest newsmakers

That said, Pence, 57, has become Trump's crucial defender-in-chief, taking on a role that Republican congressional leaders and other senior party officials have shied away from doing. Despite Trump's penchant for provocative rhetoric and stances on NATO and nuclear proliferation that have alarmed the foreign policy establishment, Pence is here to reassure the skeptics that Trump can be trusted in the Oval Office.

He would make a great president, Pence says, likening him in his leadership and his fit for the nation's mood to the Republican icon, Ronald Reagan.

He is aware that not everyone agrees. Republican governors and senators who are nervous about the top of their ticket have called and texted him. What does he tell them?

"I tell them what he's like," Pence says, "that he loves his country and he'll be a great president."

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Close communication

Pence says he and Trump talk every day on the phone, exchanging notes from the campaign trail. Trump called him immediately after the vice presidential debate Monday to congratulate him, then called again while Pence was on his way back to Richmond to congratulate him again.

In the debate, an unflappable Pence deflected repeated demands by Democrat Tim Kaine that he defend some of Trump's most controversial statements. At times, he even denied that Trump had made the comments, though the Clinton campaign and some fact-checkers have now produced videos that match Pence's denials with Trump's own words.

"I dismissed a lot of them," Pence says, waving the question away. "They talk about a statement here, a tweet there, leaving out context, leaving out other statements."

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He said then that Trump wasn't a "polished politician" like Kaine and Hillary Clinton, implying that he shouldn't be subject to such a strict parsing of words. He says many Americans understand what Trump means.

On a few subjects, Pence seemed to take a difference stance than Trump. He took a more aggressive stance on possible U.S. military action against the Assad regime in Syria. And while Trump has expressed admiring views of Vladimir Putin, Pence described the Russian president as "small and bullying leader."

"We may express it differently, but Donald Trump knows what we're dealing with," Pence said in the interview. "He knows America's stronger than Russia. Our system of living is superior to Russia. And anything he's said or I've said of Vladimir Putin, it's not an endorsement of Vladimir Putin. It's really an indictment of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton's foreign policy."

Blunt advice

Pence says he feels free to offer Trump advice, and to do so bluntly. "I favor him with my candor," he said, including when it comes to the second presidential debate, on Sunday in St. Louis.

Some political analysts see it as a last chance for Trump to turn momentum in his direction. But Pence isn't among those who argue Trump needs to do more preparation than he did the first time around.  "I think Donald Trump's been preparing for this campaign and these debates his entire life," Pence says. "The only advice I have given him privately is what I've said publicly, which is just be himself."

While "pundits and the political class" generally gave Trump low marks after the first debate, Pence notes that he went to Jacksonville, Fla., the next day and drew one of the largest crowds of the campaign.

That's the approach that has gotten Trump this far, Pence argues— and that is now propelling Pence along this bus tour through leafy precincts in Virginia, Pennsylvania and Ohio.

"Donald Trump speaks in a way that everyday Americans hear him loud and clear," Pence says. Does he ever speak in a way that makes Pence wince? He laughs. "I think it's his authenticity that brought him through that enormous primary that he passed through."

And, now, perhaps even the presidency.

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