Indiana Gov. Mike Pence has been ticking off some of his tea party backers as he positions himself to possibly run for president in 2016, and that may be just what he needs to appeal to business-minded Republicans looking for a candidate who is moderate enough to win a general election.
Pence has stoked speculation that he will run for president by appearing at several events, including a summit in Texas last month organized by Americans for Prosperity, one of several conservative interest groups backed by billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch. On Monday, he will make his first trip as governor to Iowa — a pilgrimage that several other apparent presidential hopefuls from his party, including Texas Gov. Rick Perry and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, have already made.
Pence has been noncommittal, saying only that he'll campaign for Republicans across the country heading into 2016. But many in GOP circles are keeping close watch on the first-term governor, especially those on the far right who are showing signs of disillusionment.
As a hard-charging conservative congressman, Pence was an early member of the House Tea Party Caucus. But since becoming governor, he has softened his approach to the point where many who were pushing for him to run for president in 2012 are wondering what happened. His efforts to pull Indiana from national Common Core education standards resulted in a new set of standards that one critic dubbed Common Core "warmed over." And Pence's decision to seek an alternative expansion of the state's Medicaid program led many tea partyers to accuse him of abandoning them on one of their core issues.
The disillusionment was on display last month, when anti-Common Core demonstrators protested Pence's participation in a panel discussion at the Americans For Prosperity summit.
"It's not just this one little issue, it's a number of cracks in the armor," said Joy Pullmann, author of The Federalist blog and a senior fellow at The Heartland Institute, a conservative think tank.
Pence has defended his decisions on the Medicaid alternative and new education standards.
"I'm very proud of the fact that Indiana became the first state to withdraw from the Common Core, I have long believed that education is a state and local function," said Pence, who opposed former President George W. Bush's No Child Left Behind law while a freshman congressman.
It remains to be seen how Pence's decisions will sit with voters.
In the years since Pence established himself as a leader on the right in Washington, other big national personalities have taken up that cause. The Republican field is flooded with would-be candidates appealing to the most conservative faction of the Republican base, including Perry and Jindal.
The field of prospective candidates playing to the middle is wide open, however, with Christie hurt by the scandal over the George Washington Bridge lane closures and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush giving mixed signals on whether he will run.
Pullmann, who moved to Fort Wayne from Washington three years ago, said conservative activists are split on Pence, with some saying he deserves the chance to correct his course.
"Then the other folks are saying 'Look, we don't want him to be trying to run for higher office just using the position of governor as a stepping stone. Especially if what he's going to do is pivot to becoming a RINO, if that's what he thinks he's gotta do to go win the nomination," she said, referring to the conservative slang for moderates who are considered to be "Republican in Name Only."
Pence, who will attend a meeting of the Midwest-U.S. Japan Association Conference and speak at a fundraiser for Gov. Terry Branstad while in Iowa, is staying quiet for now.
"I'm not going to Iowa for the reason you think," he quipped.