Pence tests role as Trump's chief message man

Story highlights

  • Mike Pence is reaching out to conservatives skeptical of Donald Trump
  • He will deliver that message to the GOP convention Wednesday night

Cleveland (CNN)Indiana Gov. Mike Pence began Tuesday what will likely be his toughest task as Donald Trump's running mate by attempting to build a bridge to the legacy of Ronald Reagan.

Pence delivered a whirlwind, 20-minute speech before the American Conservative Union, where he characterized Trump as this generation's Reagan and said the establishment didn't understand the passion he's ignited in the Republican base.
    Pence described Trump as a good man whose "heart beats with the heart of the American people."
    "I honestly believe in the collective wisdom of the American people and the capacity of our people to know who we need," Pence said, in a message clearly aimed at conservatives who may still be skeptical of Trump's nomination.
    Speaking before a packed house at Cibero's Italian Restaurant, Pence recounted meeting Reagan for the first time at the White House. After Pence thanked Reagan for his service, Reagan explained the populace was responsible for his success.
    "I think the American people decided to right the ship and I was just the captain they put on the bridge when they did it," Reagan said, according to Pence.
    The anecdote, a new addition to what has long been his stump speech, could preview the message Pence will deliver Wednesday upon accepting his party's nomination for vice president.
    "Whether it's a test-run or it's just trying out how he explains to people what his role's going to be, I think this was the first public attempt to do that," said Matt Schlapp, president of the American Conservative Union.
    The audience, built largely of conservative thought leaders and activists, represented the natural constituency of Pence, who has been fighting alongside them in politics for three decades. It also represents the elusive audience that Trump has been unable to court on his own.
    Schlapp said Tuesday he heard Pence take Trump's message and "fill in key details," but he said it would be wrong to call Pence an "interpreter" for Trump.
    Pence was expected to spend most of the day Tuesday preparing for Wednesday night's speech.
    Pence, who emerged from a somewhat chaotic selection process last week, tossed in a subtle dig at his former rival for the Trump ticket, Newt Gingrich. Pence, who is deeply religious, alluded to Gingrich's three marriages Tuesday.
    "Like Newt, it took me three times," Mike said, pausing, "to get elected to Congress."
    The biting joke drew only a few laughs from the room.