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Saturday, July 02, 2016 10:10 pm

Pence to visit Trump as VP rumors swirl

Niki Kelly | The Journal Gazette

INDIANAPOLIS – Gov. Mike Pence is meeting with GOP presumptive presidential nominee Donald Trump this weekend amid speculation he has made the short list of possible vice presidential running mates.

Pence Campaign Spokesman Marc Lotter confirmed to The Journal Gazette that the governor accepted an invitation to "spend a little time with Mr. Trump this weekend."

Lotter said it is consistent with meetings Trump has had with many key party leaders; he would not specifically confirm VP speculation.

The Washington Post and NBC News reported in recent days that Pence was being vetted as a possible running mate. A report from CNN, though, focused on U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and didn’t mention Pence.

On Thursday, Pence told reporters he hadn’t personally spoken to Trump but declined to say whether he was being considered.

"You’d have to talk to their campaign about who they’re looking at or who they’re not looking at," he said. "I’ll cut to the chase. I ­haven’t spoken to Donald Trump since before the Indiana primary and I certainly have never spoken to him about that topic."

Pence would presumably bring support from the social conservative wing and has experience in Washington, D.C.

"I think it’s an exciting suggestion," said Allen County GOP County Chair Steve Shine. "Mike Pence is highly disciplined and highly principled and I would think that would be a great complement to Donald Trump in providing focus and direction to a Trump administration."

Andrew Downs, director of the Mike Downs Center for Indiana Politics at IPFW, agreed that Pence ticks off a lot of boxes for Trump – social conservative, understands how Congress works, has elected executive experience.

But Pence is in the middle of a tough re-election fight against Democrat John Gregg and wouldn’t be able to do both because state law prohibits such a maneuver. An attempt to change the law last year to allow it died quickly.

The deadline for Pence to withdraw from the general election ballot is July 15. If there is a vacancy, the Indiana Republican Party central committee would choose a replacement in a caucus.

Trump has a fundraiser scheduled in Indianapolis July 12 – just a few days before the Republican National Convention kicks off.

In May, Pence discounted a VP run, saying "I have no interest in that. I’m going to stay focused on the future of the people of Indiana."

Indiana Democrats jumped on Pence’s apparent flip – saying he is only out for himself, not for Hoosiers.

"Mike Pence seems to be more concerned about his own political career than the job Hoosiers elected him to do," said Indiana Democratic Party Chairman John Zody. "With plummeting approval ratings, Gov. Pence now wants to hit the ejection button so he can avoid campaigning on his failed tenure as governor."

Indiana has had several politicos flirt with the vice presidency – most recently then-U.S. Sen. Evan Bayh. But it would be rare – if not unprecedented – for a gubernatorial candidate to withdraw after being nominated.

And it would throw the election into a bit of disarray.

"It would be a big deal," Downs said. "Depending on who the nominee is I actually think it may be easier to hold (the governor’s office) without Pence because Pence has baggage."

The governor’s approval ratings dropped after a national religious freedom/discrimination flap last year and have not recovered. Downs said some of those supporting Gregg are really just against Pence.

Possible replacements for Pence on the ballot range from Lt. Gov. Eric Holcomb, House Speaker Brian Bosma, Fort Wayne Senate President Pro Tem David Long and several current or former congressmen.

Long and Bosma would have to give up their legislative seats to run, though.

Downs said the state central committee would be choosing in a private caucus, and would be focused primarily on electability – not ideology.

Shine said he wouldn’t even know where to start given how deep he said the GOP bench is.

The downside to a Pence jump is he wouldn’t be governor, Shine said.

"He has done a phenomenal job in building our economy and improving the state," he said. "Our loss would be the nation’s gain. It would be bittersweet."

nkelly@jg.net