“History will hold Donald Trump accountable for January 6th,” Pence told hundreds of reporters in what is usually a humorous affair of etiquette. “Make no mistake about it: what happened that day was a disgrace, and it mocks decency to portray it otherwise. President Trump was wrong. His reckless words put my family and everyone in the Capitol in danger that day.”

Pence had used similar words to speak about Trump in his book, writing that his former boss’s «reckless words had endangered my family and everyone who served on Capitol Hill.»

But his advisers saw the Gridiron dinner as an opportunity to not just echo those sentiments but amplify them. They also believed it would help Pence win over his most skeptical audience these days: Washington pundits and journalists who have given him little attention in the early 2024 primaries.

“This was a different hearing for him,” said Marc Short, Pence’s former vice presidential chief of staff and his top adviser.

The Pence world has long believed that the former congressman and Indiana governor could occupy the adult lane in a room by 2024, as he is uniquely positioned to speak truth to power now that he is freed from the constraints of law enforcement. vice presidency.

«Mike is in a different place where he can be kind of free and liberated in a way that I don’t think others on the field are,» Short said. “And so I’m not looking at where he is right now. I think he has a good way to go.»

A person close to Pence, who has been granted anonymity to speak without authorization about the nascent campaign, said Pence has more room to grow among Republican primary voters than a rival like Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.

DeSantis, the person close to Pence said, has sky-high expectations as a “combination of Ronald Reagan, Willie Nelson and Bono rolled into one. But he is everything to everyone right now, because no one really knows him.» Pence, the person added, “he’s almost on the other side of it. They all think they know him. They think they have an expectation of who he is. And then when they meet them, they say, ‘That’s not what he was thinking. He is funny. He is nice. He is nice.'»

It remains to be seen if the GOP primary electorate wants someone who is fun, personable, and likable. Trump’s electoral success was the antithesis of that. DeSantis’s appeal stems, in large part, from his struggles with his political enemies.

Pence’s inner circle sees the late Sen. John McCain’s (R-Ariz.) 2008 campaign as a model. Then, like Pence now, McCain found himself sidelined by other competitors, considered a relic of an outdated type of politics while riding the Straight Talk Express. They point out that as a congressman, Pence frequently published freelance Fox News hits and joked with reporters in wide-ranging hallway interviews before becoming more of a script as governor and, later, as vice president.

Those close to Pence are trying to help him regain some of that freer approach, making sure his campaign events include small talk and don’t take a de facto position that the press is the enemy.

Pence, who joined Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) in 2006 to Launch the Congressional Caucus for Press Freedom — offered both on Saturday night. “We were able to stay at our post in part because you stayed at your post,” he told reporters covering the attack on the Capitol. «The American people know what happened that day because you never stopped reporting.»

But there are limits to how far Pence will go. While he called it critical to be transparent about what happened on January 6, he continues to fight a subpoena to testify about that day, a stance he argued is based on protecting the separation of powers as president of the Senate. His criticism of Trump’s actions on the insurrection has not been echoed by any other major candidate in the field. And while Gridiron’s comments were harsh, they did not end with a camera rolling, though Pence’s aides questioned whether that influenced his calculations to attack Trump.

Fresh off his Gridiron appearance, Pence will campaign in New Hampshire on Thursday and Iowa on Saturday, two early Republican primary states to which he has lavished attention, along with South Carolina. In particular, his aides are considering recreating the coalition that buoyed Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) — and before him then-Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee — to Iowa caucus victories in 2008 and 2016.

“If there are 150,000 people in the caucus and I can put it in front of 150,000 people one on one, do I have a chance to win?” said the person close to Pence. «I would tell you absolutely and unequivocally yes.»