FRANKENMUTH, Mich. — Nobody knew the vice president was coming until he showed up at a family-style restaurant in town.
Weaving his way through lunch hour at the fried chicken hot spot Zehnder’s, Mike Pence could have been mistaken for just another 2020 hopeful, someone who believes every handshake and polite conversation might become the vote that delivers victory on primary day.
Except this wasn’t Iowa or New Hampshire and Pence isn’t running for president — at least not yet.
Pence aides and allies insist his sole focus for the year ahead is helping Trump secure a second term in the White House. That means his schedule for the next 11 months will look much like it did on Dec. 18, when the vice president rode a campaign RV through Saginaw County — a majority white area in mid-Michigan that Trump captured by just over 1 percent in 2016 — and made unannounced visits to Zehnder’s and an indoor Christmas market along the way.
But the more Pence utilizes this particular campaign strategy — he’s “running for governor” in Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, one of his aides recently said — the harder it becomes to distinguish between a vice president who is simply doing the pedestrian politicking his counterpart loathes, and one who is using this stage to prep for his own future presidential run.
It’s a difficult balancing act for Pence. His boss, Trump, has never liked subordinates to upstage him. Therefore, Pence must cast his handshake tour of key swing states as one conducted solely to Keep America Great in 2020, not to launch the Pence 2024 ticket.
“He’s clearly out there helping to set up his own bid,” said Tom LoBianco, author of “Piety and Power: Mike Pence and the taking of the White House,” adding that Pence doesn’t have to make a decision about 2024 for at least a couple more years, but “does have to keep laying the groundwork.”
It’s difficult to measure the utility of Pence’s old-school tactics for Trump’s 2020 campaign when the president regularly draws large and sizable media coverage for rallies scheduled on just a few days’ notice. Two hours away in Battle Creek, Mich., for example, thousands of Trump fans were already assembling outside Kellogg Arena for the president’s final rally of the year — spending hours in below-freezing temperatures to avoid the nosebleed seats — when Pence began his stump speech in a Saginaw hotel conference room filled with 250 supporters offering minimal applause.