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Vice President Mike Pence in SC makes the case for Trump: 'The choice has never been clearer'

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Vice President Mike Pence spent Thursday in South Carolina where he ate barbecue, raised more than $1.5 million for President Donald Trump and made a promise to cadets at The Citadel meant to inspire confidence in the commander-in-chief.

The purpose of all of it, Pence said, was to ensure Trump is re-elected for another four years.

"President Donald Trump loves South Carolina and South Carolina loves President Donald Trump," Pence told a cheering room of people who attended The Citadel Republican Society's Patriot Dinner.

He also took aim at Democratic presidential candidates along the way who will be descending on the state ahead of the Feb. 29 Democratic presidential primary.

He compared Bernie Sanders to Groucho Marx. He called the Democratic field as a whole "radical" and questioned if the existing candidates could even call themselves moderate. He referred to former South Bend, Ind., mayor Pete Buttigieg as "that fellow from Indiana."

Then he took aim at House Majority Leader Nancy Pelosi's decision to tear up her copy of Trump's State of the Union speech.

"I didn't know if she ripped up the State of the Union speech or the Constitution," he said. 

Noting Trump's win in South Carolina's 2016 Republican presidential primary, Pence said this state recognized Trump's potential in the White House.

"Many people here saw it first," Pence said, looking around the room. "You believed that we could be prosperous. We said 'yes' to Donald Trump in 2016 and I know you're going to say 'yes' to President Donald Trump in 2020."

The comments came immediately after Pence spoke to The Citadel's Corps of Cadets, where his focus was less about politics and more about leadership and military tradition.

It was part of messaging in which he invoked Trump's name five  times inside McAlister Field House Arena.

"Be a leader," he added. "Be men and women of integrity. People follow leaders they trust. To lead others, you must lead yourself first. Be an example to those around you."

Pence went on to make a promise to the more than 2,000 Citadel cadets in attendance at the school's basketball arena. 

"You will have a commander-in-chief who will always, always have your back," Pence said, to cheers at South Carolina's military college. 

Prior to his arrival in Charleston, Pence was in Columbia for a Trump campaign fundraiser. He also had a 20-minute private meeting with longtime friend Walter Whetsell, one of South Carolina’s most experienced Republican consultants.

Whetsell told The Post and Courier the meeting was mostly intended as a courtesy call, with some discussion about how Pence could best help Trump over the next eight months leading up to the November election.

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There was no explicit talk about a potential 2024 presidential bid, Whetsell said, but the outreach to a well-connected GOP operative in the state who has also worked with former S.C. Gov. Nikki Haley may continue to stoke speculation about the vice president’s future ambitions.

"We were just catching up more than anything else," Whetsell said. "Our friendship goes back to his time in Congress.”

The day was not all about politics.

Mike Pence

Vice President Mike Pence waves after speaking at The Citadel Republican Society's Patriot dinner Thursday night before flying back to Washington, D.C. Brad Nettles/Staff

Before Pence launched into his remarks to cadets, he took a moment to address the recent tragedy about missing first-grade South Carolina girl Faye Swetlik who had been found dead just hours earlier near Columbia.

Pence called it "a heinous crime."

He said he had spoken to FBI Director Christopher Wray and assured Gov. Henry McMaster he will have the full federal resources needed to aid in the investigation.

“Hug your kids today and keep this little girl and her family and her community in your prayers,” he said.

Pence also recognized Republican state Rep. Nancy Mace, who stood and waved. She was the first woman to graduate from The Corps of Cadets.

Mace is one of several Republicans running for Congress this year seeking the congressional seat now held by Democrat Joe Cunningham of Charleston.

Pence did not note her candidacy, though.

Mace told The Post and Courier she did not expect to be mentioned by the vice president. She said via text it "made it a very special evening" to have it happen at the school that shaped her.

Before arriving at The Citadel, Pence made an unscheduled Charleston stop. His motorcade zipped through the narrow streets of downtown Charleston, where many stood outside and held up their phones as the fleet went by. When he walked into Tiger Lily Florist, three women working inside the shop appeared stunned.

Pence bought a “Luxe Love” bouquet for Valentine's Day that came with a box of chocolates, which he said his wife Karen Pence usually tells him not to get.

Jamie Lovegrove contributed to this report.  

Reach Caitlin Byrd at 843-937-5590 and follow her on Twitter @MaryCaitlinByrd.

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