Mike Pence launches 2024 Republican presidential campaign with harsh attack on Trump: ‘Should never be president again’

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Former Vice President Mike Pence on Wednesday launched his 2024 White House campaign with a series of extraordinary direct attacks on his ex-boss, declaring Donald Trump “should never be president again.”

Calling out Trump for his “reckless” actions on Jan. 6, Pence said he is proud to defy the then-president’s demands to help him overturn the result of the 2020 election.

“He demanded that I choose between him and the Constitution [and] now voters will be facing the same choice,” he told a cheering crowd in Des Moines, Iowa. “I chose the Constituion and I always will.”

“President Trump was wrong then and he is wrong now,” Pence added. “He should never be president again.”

Pence, who had previously avoided direct attacks on Trump, also unloaded on Trump for the first time on a string of issues, including restrictions on abortion, spending and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

He was particularly harsh about Trump’s embrace of Russian strongman Vladimir Putin, whom the former president hailed as a “genius” on the eve of the invasion.

“I know the difference between a genius and a war criminal,” Pence said.

Pence, a staunch opponent of abortion rights, accused Trump of “retreating from the cause of the unborn” by failing to rally support for the strongest possible bans and by suggesting that abortion restrictions are a losing issue for Republicans.

“The sanctity of life has been our party’s calling for half a century — long before Donald Trump was ever a part of it,” Pence said. “Now he treats it as an inconvenience, even blaming election losses on overturning Roe v. Wade.”

Even as he lobbed potent new political grenades at Trump, Pence sought to take credit for what he portrayed as the shared successes of their time in the White House, including tax cuts and appointing conservative judges.

“I was proud to stand by President Donald Trump every single day when we made America great again,” he said to scattered applause from a crowd in Ankeny, Iowa.

The guns-blazing announcement by Pence came as something of a surprise after he has mostly kept his powder dry on Trump for more than two years since the Jan. 6 attack.

Pence’s gauzy launch video released hours before the speech didn’t even mention Trump or Jan. 6, instead sticking to his biography as a heartland conservative.

The closest Pence came to even referring to Trump in the video came when he suggested that voters need to turn the page from unnamed divisive past leaders.

“We can turn this country around. But different times call for different leadership,” Pence declares as iconic images of American life flash by. “Our party and our country need a leader that will appeal, as Lincoln said, to the better angels of our nature.”

Pence joins the already crowded race as a dark horse, with polls putting his support in the mid-single digits, about the same as former UN ambassador Nikki Haley.

It remains to be seen if his strategy of avoiding confronting Trump head-on can work.

Trump, who has consolidated his support in recent months, is dominating the polls with the support of more than 50% of GOP primary voters.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is so far his only strong rival, although he trails badly with the backing of about 20%.

Pence on the other hand is deeply unpopular with Trump supporters. A CNN poll conducted last month found 45% of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents said they would not support Pence under any circumstance, while only 16% said the same about Trump.

Pence is one of three new candidates jumping into the crowded GOP primary field this week.

Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie announced his candidacy on Tuesday while little-known North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum also kicked off his campaign for the Oval Office Wednesday morning.

Although the vice presidency has often been a springboard for the top spot, Pence is the first former veep in modern times to compete against a former boss.

Pence hopes his durable conservative message will resonate with evangelical Christian voters, particularly in the first-in-the-nation GOP caucus state of Iowa.

He’s a staunch opponent of abortion and has a history of opposition to LGBTQ rights, a hot-button issue on the far right wing.

DeSantis and Scott, among others, have a similar Iowa-focused game plan, setting the stage for what could be a damaging fight among also-rans.

Trump is facing a possible second criminal indictment in the Mar-a-Lago classified documents scandal.

Some GOP opponents hope Trump’s legal woes will damage him politically. But there is little sign of that so far with Republican voters mostly rallying behind Trump’s claims that the investigations are little more than a politically motivated witch hunt.

With Jessica Schladebeck