Mike Pence is determined not to be the modern version of William R. King, William A. Wheeler or Charles W. Fairbanks.
The three -- vice presidents under Franklin Pierce, Rutherford B. Hayes and Theodore Roosevelt, respectively -- have receded into the mists of history, virtually unknown today, asterisks in the American story.
Pence already has earned historical significance; he defied the president who chose him and refused Donald J. Trump's imprecations to help overturn the 2020 election. But by traveling here this month and giving a rousing speech to the Republican faithful in the state that holds the first presidential primary, he has made it clear that he desires more in that American story.
In excoriating the new administration for promoting "a socialist agenda and moral decay," asserting that Joe Biden is "the most liberal president since FDR" and arguing that "patriotic education has been replaced with political indoctrination," Pence gave every indication he may be the 18th vice president to run for president. (Only six have won the White House.)
A University of New Hampshire Survey Research Center poll found that three-fifths of Republicans here said they want Trump to run again. That almost certainly means that Pence and a passel of other political figures might not mount campaigns if the 45th president tries in 2024 to become the 47th president. But, as veteran New Hampshire GOP operative Dave Carney put it in a conversation here the other day, since Trump himself doesn't know for sure what he will do, the wise tactic for potential candidates is to do what Pence is doing:
Joining House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy at a fundraiser. Speaking at Heritage Foundation and Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation and Institute events. Planting roots here, where activists expect to be courted for years, not months. Meeting with top state Republicans like Gov. Chris Sununu, a longtime associate, as well as with local political leaders like state Rep. Howard Pearl of Loudon, New Hampshire, the home of the New Hampshire Motor Speedway.
"He has a following in New Hampshire," Pearl said of Pence. "If he gets in, he'll be a force to be reckoned with. I can't speak for others, but I'll look at the field of candidates. We like to do that here in New Hampshire."
If Trump passes on a third presidential campaign, 25% of New Hampshire Republicans favor Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida, according to a Spring Victory Insights poll. But Pence has the next strongest showing, with 20%, outpacing Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas with 12% and Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah with 11%. Romney, an old-style Republican known to Granite States voters for his years as governor of neighboring Massachusetts, finished second to Sen. John McCain of Arizona in the 2008 primary here but won the contest decisively in 2012. He would be 76 years old by the time the next primary occurred.
Exacting but not exciting, Pence nonetheless ignited the crowd of New Hampshire Republicans, a group that in another era might have been described as taciturn, more likely moved by the retooling of an old farm tractor than by the return of a familiar political face.
"Pence is a very talented communicator and comes across as a nice person," said Neil Levesque, executive director of the New Hampshire Institute of Politics. "He knows the issues and knows the country. He played for the 'farm team' for four years and, with his experience, he would do well here."
Indeed, he thrilled the Hillsborough County Lincoln Reagan Dinner crowd by attacking "the Biden administration's wholehearted embrace of the radical left's all-encompassing assault on American culture and values," and brought them to their feet when he declared, "America is not a racist country," adding, "It is time for America to discard the left-wing myth of systemic racism once and for all. America is not a racist nation. America is the most just, righteous, noble, and inclusive nation ever to exist on the face of the Earth."
That is the old-time religion, renewed and retooled for the new age of conservatism.
But the enduring importance of his visit here was to address the assault on the Capitol and his role in ignoring Trump's demands that he help overturn the election results.
He described Jan. 6 as "a dark day" and said he didn't know if he and Trump will "ever see eye-to-eye about that day." But knowing that many in his audience wish he had acted otherwise -- the party here is headed by former state Rep. Steve Stepanek, who gained the chairmanship in a 297-99 vote -- Pence artfully changed the subject, or at least the emphasis:
"But I will always be proud of what we accomplished for the American people over the past four years," he said. "I will not allow Democrats or their allies in the media to use one tragic day to discredit the aspirations of millions of Americans. Or allow Democrats or their allies in the media to distract our attention from a new administration intent on further dividing our country to advance their radical agenda."
No vice president has been in a more difficult position with his president in American history, and though he did not carve out a distinctive profile like Walter Mondale (on refugees from Asia), Albert Gore (on climate change), Dick Cheney (on terrorism and intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan) or Biden himself (on gay marriage), Pence nonetheless played an important role in American political history that January day.
"Part of the vice president's job is to support the president," said Joel Goldstein, the emeritus law professor at Saint Louis University who is regarded as the leading authority on the vice presidency. "Pence did that in a way that went beyond what modern vice presidents have done. His level of praise for Trump made him the sycophant-in-chief. But that day he did his clear duty under the law."
Now he is seeking new distinction. One of his predecessors, Thomas Marshall, who from 1913 to 1921 served under Woodrow Wilson, liked to tell the story of a mother with two sons, one who drowned at sea and the other who became vice president, saying "neither was ever heard from again." Pence clearly is determined to be heard from again.