COLUMBIA — Former Vice President Mike Pence returned to South Carolina and the public eye, telling a friendly crowd of several hundred Christian conservatives they need to "stand up and unite behind a positive agenda and win back America" in his first major speech since leaving office in January.
The effort to reclaim control of the country, Pence added at an April 29 fundraising gala for the Palmetto Family Council, "starts right here and right now in South Carolina."
The remarks served as an early test for Pence as he emerges from former President Donald Trump's shadow for the first time, seeking to emphasize their accomplishments together while also charting his own path forward as he looks ahead to a potential presidential bid of his own.
"We made history," Pence said of his time in the administration. "We made a difference for our security, for our prosperity... We made America greater than ever before."
Despite years of loyalty to Trump, Pence came under fire from the then-president after he bucked his request to block the counting of electoral votes on Jan. 6. When a violent mob subsequently stormed the U.S. Capitol, some were screaming threats against Pence, who had to be shepherded away to safety.
The episode may have damaged Pence's political reputation among some Trump diehards and his previously close relationship with Trump. The former president continues to voice frustrations with Pence, reportedly telling donors at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida this month that he remains "disappointed" by his second-in-command.
Walter Whetsell, a veteran S.C. GOP strategist and longtime friend of Pence, said he still believes the former vice president would rank among the top tier of hopefuls in the Palmetto State due to his conservative background, national profile and four years by Trump's side.
"For every vote he loses from the real fringe of our party for being perceived as disloyal, he picks up five or six because of his loyalty," Whetsell said.
"It's hard to put on paper a better candidate for South Carolina than Mike Pence: his evangelical roots, his Midwestern governor accomplishments, his states rights beliefs, his philosophy, the way he's lived his life," Whetsell added. "It's a pretty darn good fit."
Dating back to his days as a congressman and Indiana governor, Pence has often described himself as "a Christian, a conservative and a Republican — in that order," and his Columbia speech was filled with references to scripture.
Pence made no mention of his dust-up with Trump or his unfounded claims of widespread election fraud. But he did say that conservatives believe "election integrity is a national imperative" and that lawmakers need to "work every day to restore the confidence of every American in every vote."
Top South Carolina Democrats, for their part, give Pence no credit for his willingness to rebuke Trump's efforts to overturn the election results, saying he had no ability to do so anyway. They also argue Pence missed his opportunity to leave a positive mark when he was in the White House, including with his handling of the coronavirus pandemic.
"The reality is this, folks: Republicans like Pence failed to lead when they were in power," Democratic National Committee chairman Jaime Harrison, a former S.C. Democratic Party chairman and U.S. Senate candidate, said.
The speech came amid a flurry of recent activity for Pence, both political and personal.
Earlier this month, he launched "Advancing American Freedom," a policy and advocacy organization to promote the Trump administration's policies. He's signed a multi-million dollar book deal and has plans to launch a podcast. He also recently underwent heart surgery and had a pacemaker implanted.
As he introduced Pence to the crowd, first-term state Sen. Josh Kimbrell said Pence "did more to carry forward the cause of freedom and religious liberty, and frankly the cause of the gospel, than any person I can remember."
"Vice President Pence is here to stand with all of you, and I pray you all will stand with him," said Kimbrell, R-Spartanburg. "I would love to see Mike Pence become my commander-in-chief."
Pence frequently visited South Carolina, a crucial early-voting presidential primary state, during his time as vice president, helping build potentially valuable relationships for any future campaigns. He also swung through Charleston for a private event in February.
Before the evening's main event April 29, Pence toured a medical school in Spartanburg and met with local pastors in Columbia. He is expected to return to South Carolina within the next few months to help fund-raise for congressional Republicans in the state, according to a source with knowledge of his plans.
While Pence did not directly address 2024, he hinted he has his eyes directed towards the future.
"The best days for the greatest nation on Earth," Pence said as he wrapped up his remarks, "are yet to come."