Indiana Gov. Mike Pence formally launched what is widely viewed as a difficult re-election campaign Wednesday, accusing his opponent of being beholden to "union bosses and liberal special interests" while suggesting his own candidacy represents a continuation of a vision first offered by his predecessor, former Gov. Mitch Daniels.
"We can choose to accelerate our success based on fiscal responsibility, pro-growth polices, education innovation and infrastructure. Or we can choose to reverse course to go back down the road that [former] Speaker John Gregg and Democrats had us on 12 years ago," Pence said at a news conference, referring to his rival.
"We know where that road leads. It's a place called Illinois and we are not going there," he said, speaking of the neighboring state that has gone months without a budget due to an impasse between a Republican governor and Democratic state leadership.
The event, held in the shadow of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, kicked off a three-day bus tour during which Pence will seek to reframe the debate over his time in office, which has come to be dominated by his embrace of divisive social issues. Most notable: His recent support for one of the most restrictive abortion laws in the country and his handling of a religious freedom law that was amended last spring amid negative attention and criticism that it sanctioned discrimination against gay people.
The fact that Pence launched his re-election bid with an attack on Gregg, whom he narrowly beat in 2012, is notable because he previously disavowed political attacks and once wrote a manifesto titled "Confessions of a Negative Campaigner."
But Pence, an Evangelical stalwart, is seen as vulnerable due to low poll numbers, and some GOP strategists were frustrated last time he ran against Gregg for refusing to attack the Democrat.
"It's a desperation tactic that isn't based on any proof," said Gregg spokesman Jeff Harris, noting that all the policies Pence has attacked Gregg on were approved by the Republican-controlled state Senate.
Pence, however, has also sought to highlight positive developments while he's been in office, including improvements in the job market. It's a theme he hopes to drive home in a TV commercial that started airing last week, a montage of video clips that show dozens of people getting ready for work.
But even as Pence sought to dwell on the positive, a small but vocal group of protesters stood outside Wednesday's event, attempting to redirect the focus back to his vulnerabilities by chanting "Pence must go" and waving signs that said "fire Mike Pence" and "no gays allowed."
"I think it's time that we laid out a choice," Pence said Wednesday. "I think Hoosiers have a real opportunity now to choose a future that is built on the principles and policies that we've been advancing."