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POLITICS: PennAve

Indiana Gov. Mike Pence stakes out a presidential position

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Indiana Gov. Mike Pence often tells audiences that answers to the nation's problems “will come more from our nation's capitals than it ever will from our nation's capital.”

In a speech to the National Rifle Association convention in Indianapolis, he called the 12 years he spent inside the Beltway as a congressman the longest of his life.

The line earned him plenty of applause that day.

But for many who have watched Pence's sharp political rise over the last decade, the anti-Washington rhetoric rings hollow, especially considering his admission this week that he is weighing his 2016 options.

Even before that, it was clear he was positioning himself for a White House run. During a mid-April visit to Germany to seek foreign business investment for the state, Pence, 54, delivered a speech at Berlin's Brandenburg Gate hitting President Obama for scrapping plans for a missile-defense shield in Eastern Europe.

In a recent "Fox News Sunday" show, host Chris Wallace pointed out Pence was slated to speak to the Wisconsin and Alabama state GOP conventions in May and June.

Pence insisted that he was “entirely” focused on the future of the people of Indiana.

“We'll let my future take care of itself,” he said.

But behind the scenes, Pence is leaving little to chance, Indiana political observers say.

Andrew Downs, director of the Mike Downs Center for Indiana Politics at Indiana University, says Pence doesn't spend much time pushing his priorities through the state legislature because he's preoccupied with other things like “preparing to run for president.”

The Weekly Standard's (a sister publication of the Washington Examiner) Bill Kristol, as well as FreedomWorks President Matt Kibbe and Club for Growth President Chris Chocola tried to convince Pence to run for president in 2012. But the ambitious Hoosier knew the long odds of a House member making the leap to the White House and headed back to Indianapolis to run for governor instead.

Over the last two years, while expected Republican presidential contenders Sens. Ted Cruz, Rand Paul and Marco Rubio have been shaking up the GOP establishment in Washington and earning their fair share of slings and arrows, Pence has been quietly building a record of modest conservative achievements in Indiana that could serve him well if he decides to join the wide-open 2016 GOP fray.

A genial former radio broadcaster who knows how to talk to the media, Pence during his time in Congress bucked his party's leadership and President George W. Bush as one of a handful of Republicans to vote against both the No Child Left Behind and the Medicare prescription drug bills.

Later, he lost a race against Rep. John Boehner for minority leader in 2006 but went on to become chairman of the Republican Conference, the House GOP communication arm and the third-highest leadership position.

That year he rattled his conservative base when he sought an immigration compromise. At the time, he said his Irish immigrant heritage influenced his support for immigration reform.

Pence grew up in a family of Irish Catholic Democrats but became an evangelical Christian and Republican during his undergraduate years at Indiana's Hanover College when he could no longer reconcile the Democratic Party's support for abortion rights with his religious beliefs. He met his wife, Karen, at a church service and the two have three children in college right now.

During his years in Congress, Pence earned a 100-percent rating from the National Right to Life Committee, a credential that would help in Iowa's early presidential caucus, where evangelicals helped propel Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum to wins there in 2008 and 2012, respectively.

Back in Indiana, however, Pence has had a hard time escaping the long shadow of his predecessor — popular two-term Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, who recently put the kibosh on his own prospective presidential run.

“He's no Mitch Daniels,” says Joshua Kaplan, a political science professor at Notre Dame University.

Kaplan said Daniels deliberately took a moderate and non-ideological approach to being governor so he could get the state back on strong financial footing while Pence wants to push a more conservative agenda — possibly because of his presidential aspirations.

Before diving into the 2016 contest, Pence still must navigate some homegrown political land mines.

He won conservative plaudits for resisting Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius' push for Medicaid expansion in Indiana in favor of a one-year extension of a state-run plan that relies on contributions to health savings accounts.

But he recently miscalculated in handling Indiana's rejection of the Common Core education standards. Indiana was the first state to reject the initiative, but Pence installed new standards that critics charge are little more than Common Core rebranded.

“It was a real disappointment to us that he did not provide leadership on the issue and anything more than a rebranded version of Common Core,” said Heather Crossin, co-founder of Hoosiers against Common Core.

The issue was so hot in Indiana that two sitting state representatives who Pence endorsed lost their seats in primary challenges partly because of their support for Pence's version of the new standards.

It's an experience Pence would do well to learn from if he's counting on his conservative base to help catapult him to the top of the GOP presidential field.

After all, he has only one more year to establish a record outside of Washington before he starts running again to return.

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