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Watch Trump's and Pence's dueling DC speeches
02:39 - Source: CNN

Editor’s Note: Scott Jennings, a CNN contributor and Republican campaign adviser, is a former special assistant to President George W. Bush and a former campaign adviser to Sen. Mitch McConnell. He is a partner at RunSwitch Public Relations in Louisville, Kentucky. Follow him on Twitter @ScottJenningsKY. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion articles on CNN.

CNN  — 

Former Vice President Mike Pence came to Washington, DC this week with a message: the Republican Party must look forward, not backward, if it intends to win back the White House in 2024.

Scott Jennings

It was a not-so-subtle dig at his old running mate, former President Donald Trump, whose next campaign will be motivated by relitigating the 2020 election, which he lost, and exacting revenge on those who didn’t fall in line. None of this seething anger about losing matters much to the average voter, but it certainly helps Trump hold together a political base that’s quite formidable in a multi-candidate primary.

Pence is right, of course: General elections are about the future. And he’s earned the right to make his case after 20 years of service to the Republican Party. His speech on Tuesday to the right-of-center Young America’s Foundation (YAF) checked every box a conservative would want: economic freedom, strong national defense, pro-life, school choice and more. He even name-checked his John Deere zero-turn-radius lawn mower, which appeals to suburban dads like me.

But the question is whether Pence’s style and political circumstances will allow him to flourish in the GOP primary to come.

Current polling among the non-Trump candidates shows Pence trailing Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, whose knack for finding all the right enemies (a vital attribute in GOP politics these days) has put him at the top of the list. Recent polls in Michigan and New Hampshire, in fact, show DeSantis tied with Trump, even as he trails the former president nationally.

Many Republicans, increasingly focused on 2024, are looking for someone other than Trump, nervous about rolling the dice again on a candidate who has lost the national popular vote in two straight elections. I suspect that more than one GOP candidate for president will point out that Trump lost to President Joe Biden who, as far as many on the right are concerned, is the most inept president in recent memory. Republicans can retain an affinity for Trump while still recognizing the inflationary disaster he unleashed on the country by losing to Biden in 2020 and costing the GOP two Senate seats in Georgia.

Had Trump done nothing at all after losing and simply headed to the golf course, he’d already be picking out his next cabinet. Instead, he violated his oath of office and nearly plunged the country into crisis on January 6. (Thank goodness for Pence’s resolve.) Had Trump gone into hiding after losing, he’d have a 20-point lead on Biden right now. Instead, the country is crying out for both parties to nominate someone – anyone! – other than these two guys.

Trump has advantages: money, political infrastructure, and a solid core of ride-or-die supporters. Most importantly, he’s running in a party with a winner-take-all system where a simple plurality of votes is enough to capture all the delegates in a state. In 2016, Trump won 46% of the general election vote, yet easily captured the nomination due to the fragmentation caused by a large field of candidates. That could happen again in 2024, if every Republican considering entering the race actually runs. There are at least 10, maybe more, highly qualified, viable potential candidates looking at running.

Pence is one of those highly qualified options. But his viability is suspect. He isn’t exactly Mr. Excitement on the stump, as evidenced by his wooden delivery at the YAF speech. And he doesn’t have an instinct for the performative, in-your-face politics perfected by Trump and now emulated by DeSantis and others.

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    I have my doubts that he will be a top-tier candidate for the nomination in 2024, but that’s what campaigns are for. Who knows? Maybe boring, stable and resolute will be back en vogue next election.

    I do know that Pence deserves enormous respect for his service to our country and our party, and for standing up to the mob on January 6. Pence may not be the Republican Party’s savior in 2024, but his message may help clear a path for some other nominee who could move the party – and the country – forward, instead of backward.