Mike Pence goes after Trump and 'imitators' for shifting GOP from its roots

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MANCHESTER, N.H. — Mike Pence made some of his sharpest criticisms yet of Donald Trump — and those he calls Trump's “imitators” in the GOP primary — in a speech Wednesday about the battle between conservatism and populism in the Republican Party.

Pence has repeatedly denounced the former president’s actions on Jan. 6, 2021, when he pressured Pence, then the vice president, to subvert the results of the 2020 election and a violent mob attacked the U.S. Capitol. But Pence is now breaking with Trump, his onetime running mate, over broader philosophical and policy grounds.

Pence spent four years in the Trump administration as a booster for Trump’s policies, but now he says Trump no longer backs conservative policies and sounds “like an echo of the progressives” the party wants to replace.

“The growing faction would substitute our faith in limited government and traditional values with an agenda stitched together by little else than personal grievances and performative outrage,” Pence said of the populists in his party in the speech at St. Anselm College.

In his first policy address since he came out swinging on the Republican presidential primary debate stage, Pence drew a stark contrast with his primary competitors, including Trump. Pence had limited his criticism of Trump largely to Jan. 6, along with abortion and entitlement reform.

But Pence still faces an uphill battle for traction in the modern-day GOP — as polls show Republican primary voters are still largely behind Trump.

“The truth is the Republican Party did not begin on a golden escalator in 2015,” Pence said in his speech, referring to Trump's first campaign announcement.

He did not name Trump or any other candidate, but he made it clear whom his criticisms were directed toward.

“The governor of Florida still justifies using the power of the state to punish a corporation for taking a political stand that he disagreed with,” Pence said, referring to Ron DeSantis and his dispute with Disney.

“And one of the president’s populist protégés actually advocated a 59% inheritance tax in his book, ‘Nation of Victims,’ last year,” Pence said, referring to Vivek Ramaswamy — a recent target of his ire at the August GOP debate and on the campaign trail.

Pence did not mention other candidates as specifically Wednesday — but he talked about policies some of them hold, such as being unwilling to reform entitlement programs to deal with the national debt or wanting to leave abortion legislation up to the states. Pence, who has advocated for federal limits on abortion, and former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley disagreed over how to handle the issue at the last debate.

“I really do believe that we’re now, after Labor Day, engaged in an important debate over the future of the party that will bear upon the future of America,” Pence told NBC News on Tuesday. “And it’s really a debate about whether or not the Republican Party is going to continue to hew to the common-sense conservative agenda that has defined our movement over the last 50 years or whether we’re going to, we’re going to heed the siren song of populism unmoored to conservative principles.”

This article was originally published on NBCNews.com