Indiana Gov. Mike Pence on Thursday called on Republicans to dramatically limit the federal government's role in public education, welfare programs and transportation in a speech aimed at boosting his profile among New York's powerful political donors.
"I'm more convinced than I've ever been in my life that the cure for what ails this country will come more from our nation's state capitals than it ever will from our nation's capital," Pence, a former congressman, told a packed hotel ballroom shortly after donors paid $5,000 each for a picture with him.
The comments came at the New York GOP's annual dinner, a fundraising event set in Times Square that attracts ambitious Republicans each year eager to tap into the city's massive bank of campaign cash. Recent speakers include Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush — each of whom is weighing a presidential bid.
Pence declared that Washington Republicans must "permanently reduce the size and scope of the federal government by restoring to the states those resources and responsibilities that are rightfully theirs under the Constitution," specifically citing education, welfare and transportation.
He used humor to distance himself from an unpopular Congress, where he served for more than a decade. "If I only had 12 years to live I'd want to live it as a member of Congress," he said, "because that was the longest 12 years of my life."
Pence may be less known on the national stage, but Republican operatives suggest he could emerge as a major player in the 2016 contest should he run.
"He's got presidential qualities," New York Republican Party Chairman Ed Cox said.
As he mulls a White House bid a year and a half into his first term as governor, Pence has been working to strengthen his national profile. Thursday's trip represented his second meeting with New York donors in as many months. He followed the first New York appearance by pitching a plan to expand health insurance coverage for low-income Indiana residents during a speech at a conservative think tank in Washington.
He has also been strengthening ties to Republicans in other states, headlining events for the Wisconsin and Alabama GOP in recent weeks.
At the same time, he's bolstering his foreign policy credentials. The Indiana governor is taking a group of business leaders on a jobs mission to the United Kingdom in July. During an economic trade mission to Germany last May, Pence took the unusual step of criticizing the president while abroad when he faulted President Barack Obama's handling of the situation in Ukraine.
Pence took repeated swipes at Obama's international leadership on Thursday. "The foreign policy of this administration has made the world less safe," he said, "and must be replaced with a policy of peace through strength."
Pence is popular with Indiana voters and has allies among national establishment Republicans and evangelical voters alike.
"Mike Pence is a successful governor and a full-spectrum conservative who could attract support from many different lanes in the Republican Party. He's also one of the best communicators we have," said GOP operative Phil Musser, a veteran of presidential politics.
Pence also has strong ties to billionaire conservative donors Charles and David Koch, whose political network pumped tens of millions of dollars into the last presidential race.
Elected to his first term as governor in 2012, Pence had weighed a challenge to Obama's re-election. He has been saying for months that he is "listening" to national conservatives interested in seeing him make a presidential bid.