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Pence and Trump woo Iowa voters in hopes of gaining early momentum from the state

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NEOLA, Iowa — Former Vice President Mike Pence ended most of his 12 events in 10 Iowa counties this week asking crowds to pray over the next few months – for himself, his wife Karen and all the other 2024 GOP hopefuls.

That request likely includes his former running mate and the biggest hurdle for Pence to overcome in his own quest for the White House: former President Donald Trump.

“I would ask if it would be ok with you to bow your head and bend the knee and from time to time Karen and I would be grateful if you would remember us in your prayer,” Pence said in Sioux City Iowa on Wednesday. Morning. “Pray for all those fine men and women running in the Republican primaries.”

But Pence isn’t always deferential to his former boss. The three-day blitz in Iowa was peppered with questions from voters about Trump — including two directly about Pence’s role in certifying Joe Biden’s victory in the 2020 presidential election on Jan. 6, 2021, a decision that Trump falsely claims is the reason he is not currently in the White House. Pence, who usually refers to his favorite opponent cautiously, offered pointed answers in return.

“I have said, at least on one occasion, this week here in Iowa, that I have no right to void the election in 2020,” Pence said during his final campaign stop Thursday in a Western Iowa town just a 20 minute drive from the Council. Bluffs, where Trump later held an event on Friday.

“I’m very confident, especially after this week, that the people of Iowa will take a fresh look, not only at us, but at the former president, and at all the candidates,” he said. he adds.

The two candidate visits to Central State earlier this week, both in size and tone, offered a split-screen of how men who were once on the same ticket strategize to win the caucus and ultimately the GOP nomination.

In Iowa this week, Pence walked hundreds of miles from the Urbandale Independence Day Parade to a local midstate campground in Neola. He participated in intimate meetings with local Republican parties and shook hands with veterans and community members. To the largely evangelical electorate in the Midwest, he presented himself as an experienced, faith-filled public servant. Pence’s campaign confirmed to ABC News that his plan is to do much of the small-scale retail politics he embarked on last week.

Pence’s mention of Trump is especially tricky when interacting with Iowa voters, often telling people he’s proud of the accomplishments of the Trump-Pence administration and that he was loyal to the president “until ‘on that fateful day when my oath to the United States Constitution asked me to do otherwise.

“Pence is very methodical and strategic,” said Doug Heye, GOP strategist and former aide to the Republican National Committee. “He’s going to take Trump head-on on the things where politically he sees the greatest benefit — and with an eye to history, as he obviously tries to do.”

Trump follows a similar line when discussing Pence: polite, but adamant in his response to the events of Jan. 6.

“I really like Mike Pence. He’s a very good man, a very nice man,” Trump said during his town hall on CNN in May. “He made a mistake. …He did something wrong. He should have returned the votes to the state legislatures and I think we would have had a different outcome.

At Council Bluffs on Friday, hundreds lined up to hear Trump bragging about his presidency’s agricultural accomplishments and stop at a local Dairy Queen before leaving the state. Throughout his remarks, Trump took jabs at his closest rival, Governor Ron DeSantis. He didn’t mention Pence once.

A Trump campaign spokesperson told ABC News that the candidate’s path in Iowa is “all-round dominance that no other campaign can even touch.”

The stakes are very different for the two candidates. For Trump, who lost the Iowa caucus in 2016 to Sen. Ted Cruz before soaring to the Republican nomination, a caucus victory would be welcome but not necessarily imperative. For Pence, who trails Trump and DeSantis by double digits in most national polls, Iowa could be key.

And Pence seems to know it, pledging to do the “full Grassley” — a tour of all 99 counties in the state, something Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley popularized.

“I think we have to do well. We will work our hearts. I’m going to go to all 99 counties… I’m going to do the whole Pizza Ranch tour,” Pence said at an event in Le Mars, Iowa this week, when asked how great the Hawkeye State contest was. essential.

Bob Vander Plaats, president of The Family Leader and influential evangelical Christian activist in the state, noted that a victory in Iowa, particularly against former President Trump, could be one of the surest ways to gain some serious momentum in the GOP primaries.

“It’s not always you picking the winner, but you’re narrowing the field,” said Vander Plaats, who acknowledged that former Iowa caucus winners like Cruz, Rick Santorum or Mike Huckabee haven’t become presidential candidates.

“The thing is here, I think why Iowa is so crucial this time, if Trump wins Iowa, I think a lot of people would think ‘I don’t know how you’re going to stop him. but if you beat Trump in Iowa, it will basically show that he can beat that he can be beaten and that will be a launching pad.”

Pence seems to believe in the ability of Iowans to recognize the distinctions between him and Trump. And it was precisely his religiosity and emphasis on “civility” that seemed to impact some Iowa voters this week.

“To sit here and listen to you talk about your faith… And then to think that it could be a reality for our country to be led by a man of faith. It touches Nancy and my heart deeply. This is what we need,” Sioux Center resident Bernerd Versteeg stood up and told Pence during a meeting in the city on Wednesday.

But Versteeg, in an interview with ABC News after the event, said he still wasn’t sure he would caucus for Pence. He said he needed to peek “a little more”.

Ida County GOP Chairwoman Teresa Paulsrud said she thinks the state is fair game for a candidate like Pence, who she says is “a wonderful person.”

“Obviously, I voted twice for Trump. There are Republicans who aren’t sure about doing this a third time. And I’ve heard some of those comments. It’s just hard to say. You know, it’s impossible to predict,” she said after hosting the Pence event in Ida County, adding that “no one can beat her level of experience.”

Vander Plaats noted the lag between early polls and victories in early states.

“Early polls just don’t say much. If it was, Mike Huckabee, Rick Santorum and Ted Cruz, none of them were going to win the Iowa caucuses because they were all at lagging and lagging behind significantly,” said Vander Plaats. .

“So what you have to do is do the things that Pence does and that goes from Pizza Ranch to Pizza Ranch, shaking hands answering the same questions and carrying people well. I think the people of Iowa are wise, they’re savvy, they’re very insightful, but they don’t make quick decisions. And I think that benefits someone like Vice President Pence.”

And Chip Saltsman, national campaign chairman for the Pence campaign who led former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee’s bid for the White House in 2008, told ABC News he’s not worried about Pence’s place in the polls.

“Governor Huckabee was 1%, summer 2008. I’ve yet to see a frontrunner this summer go to the Iowa caucus and win,” Saltsman said. Huckabee won the caucus this cycle before losing the GOP nomination to Sen. John McCain.

“Iowa is a grassroots state that rewards hard work, and it’s a state where you have to earn their vote and you can’t buy it,” he added.

There are about six months until the Iowa caucus, which is scheduled to be held on January 15, 2024.

— ABC News’ Libby Cathey and Lalee Ibssa contributed to this report.

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