CLEVELAND — When I first started talking to Mike Pence regularly, in 2003, he was whipping votes against the vaunted nose-counting and arm-twisting machine of the legendary Republican leader Tom DeLay.
Pence was concerned that President George W. Bush, with the aid of top congressional Republicans, was in the process of turning the GOP into a spending party. The issue of the moment was the creation of Medicare Part D, a program that subsidizes prescription drugs for seniors.
Bush and many Republicans in Congress wanted a domestic policy achievement to run on in 2004. Conservatives, Pence argued, had no business expanding the footprint of the federal government. It would only lead to more debt, higher taxes or both.
My assignment at the time, as a junior reporter for Congressional Quarterly, was to help our health care reporter, Mary Agnes Carey, keep track of how many votes the leadership had for the bill — and how many Republicans might vote against it.
As he battled an establishment juggernaut that never seemed to lose, and as we gained a level of trust in the speaker’s lobby off the House floor, Pence would share the number — and sometimes the names — of Republicans who were ready to risk bucking Bush, DeLay and the rest of the GOP powers.
Some of his colleagues bristled at Pence’s dogma, his piety, and what they viewed as his self-promotion at the expense of party goals.
Sound familiar? When he says now that he was tea party before it was cool, he’s not lying.
What struck me about Pence — and stuck — is this: He operated from the conservative moral high ground without making things personal; his sunny optimism contrasted starkly with the grim assessment he had of the direction of his party and the nation, and he spoke, always on message, with both clarity and conviction.
Mike Pence, I thought at the time, was going places. Now, as the 57-year-old governor of Indiana takes the stage to address the Republican convention at the Quicken Loans Arena, his future hangs in the balance of his remarks tonight and his handling of the No. 2 spot on Donald Trump’s ticket.
Already, many establishment Republicans think he’s consigned himself to the political dust heap, forever tainting himself as Trump’s sidekick.
That’s why tonight’s speech matters so much for Pence. It is his opportunity to show why Republicans should look to him as their leader of the future — either as a successor to Trump or the main challenger to Hillary Clinton in 2020.
If he wants that role, he’ll have to do what no other Republican this cycle has managed to do: bring together the warring factions of the GOP.
No one can question his conservative bona fides on budgets, national defense or social policy. But, in rising to the No. 3 House leadership spot and later to governor of Indiana, he’s learned to deal with more moderate Republicans when necessary.
He’s proudly worn the mantle of an anti-establishment crusader, but he’ll want help from GOP elites if he’s ever to make a run for president.
Rather than a moment to endorse everything Trump says — as he did in a “60 Minutes” interview over the weekend — this is the time for Pence to wow Republicans with his ability to connect core conservative convictions with the kind of moderate tone and temperament that appeal to the establishment.
So far, the only thing Republicans at this convention have been able to agree upon is that Hillary Clinton is bad — and not all of them think she’s worse than Trump. Pence has an opportunity to become the leader that the Republican Party so sorely lacks right now.
He should be careful not to get caught up in the fever of conspiracy theories and hatred that have dominated the GOP primaries and this convention in its first two days. Ben Carson actually tried to connect Clinton to Lucifer — through Saul Alinksy — on Tuesday night.
Pence’s strengths are his convictions and his ability, with joy in his voice, to turn concerns about the direction of the nation into prescriptions for conservative policy-making. He’d do well to stick with them tonight — to make a clean break with the tone of the convention so far — and bring together both conservatives and moderates, elites and anti-establishment activists. That would be even more Reaganesque than Ronald Reagan, whose 1980 Republican convention speech hammered Jimmy Carter’s America but lacked a little bit of the sunny polish he later had in the White House.
If Pence can channel the White House version of his hero tonight, he’ll do a service for both his party and his ambitions.
Roll Call columnist Jonathan Allen is co-author of the New York Times-bestselling Clinton biography “HRC” and has covered Congress, the White House and elections over the past 15 years.