This article is part of The DC Brief, TIME’s political newsletter. Signing up here to get these kinds of stories in your inbox.
KENNESAW, Ga.-It’s sometimes easy to forget how effective Mike Pence can be when targeting a political enemy.
The former vice president joined Governor Brian Kemp Monday for a rally in Atlanta’s northern suburbs, where Kemp’s bid for renomination against David Perdue came out as a big race in Tuesday’s Georgia primaries. As Pence turned up the crowd, effectively voicing clear criticism of expected Democratic nominee Stacey Abrams while discussing Kemp’s achievements as well as some of his own, he also reminded his fellow Republicans that his sales skills would remain formidable. if he chose to run to the office for another one.
Pence warned against the “radical left wing” that he claimed wanted to infringe on traditional values and indoctrinate students as racists. He hit all the biggest hits of the conservative movement: abortion, prayer and wake up. “The Biden-Harris administration has unleashed a tidal wave of left-wing policies, eroded our position in the world and suffocated our economy,” Pence said, testing what looked very much like a campaign speech for his own return to power. “Honestly, the Democrats have moved so fast that sometimes I think the left hand doesn’t know what the far left hand is doing.”
And despite his own well-documented disagreements with former President Donald Trump, Pence was only too eager to empathize with the four years of the Trump-Pence administration, which many Republicans view as an outright success. “In 48 short months, we achieved the lowest unemployment rate, the highest household income, the most energy production, the most pro-US trade deals, the safest border and the strongest military the world has ever known,” Pence said. “We did that.”
If that sounds like the words of a White House candidate—and not someone just brought in by a friend for an 11th-hour “atta-boy”—it’s no coincidence. Pence is clearly considering his next steps in politics. His political operation never really ended, and some of his long-serving aides are still active as he roams the country in search of strategic allies like Kemp, a popular governor in an unexpected battleground. Not one to go by gut feeling, Pence’s performance in Georgia on Monday night suggests he expects to get some credit for Kemp’s anticipated win on Tuesday — and earn a chit along the way.
It’s just an added bonus that Trump supported Kemp’s challenger.
As ambitious and cunning as anyone in his party, in 2016 Pence took the calculated risk of accepting then-candidate Trump’s invitation to join forces against Hillary Clinton. Though they were political polar opposites—Pence, a staunch Christian conservative to Trump’s thrice-married adulterous casino operator—the match worked for voters, at least in 2016. And though their White House tenure provided plenty of awkward moments and a plethora of compromises on the part of the vice president, Pence nevertheless kept his word to serve with pleasure, even silently on Jan. 6, 2021 when Trump launched a riotous mob at the U.S. Capitol in a failed attempt to pressure Pence and others to counter the results of the 2020 elections.
Trump has given indications that he plans to seek a rematch against President Joe Biden in two years’ time. That has frozen much of the Republican field, but not all of it. For Pence — and others like him who look to 2024 with uncertainty about both Trump’s plans and his political potential — the work for the nomination has already begun.
Most presidential campaigns start years before anyone officially pulls the trigger. For example governments. Pete Ricketts of Nebraska and Doug Ducey of Arizona, as well as former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, have been visiting Georgia in recent weeks to hobble for Kemp. And former South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley, former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis also tested messages for potential bids — all of them made visits to early-nominated states like Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina.
Pence, having been on a national ballot twice before and having a Rolodex built up during a political career with stints as Congressman and Governor of Indiana, is starting out as a top candidate. But doubts remain among the MAGA crowd. While he may be as conservative as they come, he’s also a guy who plays by the rules. And despite Trump urging him to try and get Congress to ignore the results of the 2020 election, Pence followed the law as he understood it on Jan. 6 — even as a violent horde descended on the Capitol.
“He’s balanced his morale well with the needs of the Trump role, but I think a lot of the stuff about the election is crazy,” said Michael Bova, a 63-year-old retired Defense Defense officer. Department of Hampton, Georgia, who attended Monday night to hear the governor of Georgia and the former vice president.
Bova attended high school in Indiana with Pence and still talked to him about attending the upcoming class reunion. He was proud of his former friend’s success and also sympathized with his current political situation. “As loyal as Pence was, he didn’t deserve what happened,” Bova said. He didn’t have the power to turn the results around. He would have done it if he could have.”
But among the voters in the crowd here in Kennesaw, there wasn’t much clamor for Pence to run yet. It wasn’t necessarily because of their overwhelming love for Trump, but more because of a sense of fatigue from the entire era.
“I don’t think it’s right that Kemp is campaigning with Pence. He just reminds us how divided the Republican Party is here at a time when we can’t afford to be,” said Ryan Covan, a 22-year-old psychology student at nearby Kennesaw State University and a former campaigner for Republicans two. years ago. “Pence has the audacity to be here with Kemp. He should never show his face.”
When asked whether Pence, a former conservative radio host, should consider a run in 2024, Covan said, “Absolutely not.”
That was also the sentiment of 78-year-old Elva Dornbusch, a retired Kennesaw government hand who would have preferred DeSantis as a candidate. “Pence is absolutely not allowed to run.”
But Pence was widely seen as a top contender in this crowd, even among the Pence skeptics. “The vice president is not Georgia. Brian Kemp is Georgia. But to be fair, Pence and DeSantis would be the frontrunners by 2024,” said Jay Neal, a 58-year-old civil servant who traveled more than an hour from Chickamauga. What about Trump? ‘I hope he doesn’t run away. He’s too divisive.”
Pence, who has run his campaigns from the ledger and not from the heart, wouldn’t make a run if he couldn’t win. Where Trump walked on his stomach, Pence’s circle of advisers focuses their efforts on math. Although Pence is a man of deep personal faith, prayers are no substitute for ballots, and he has never been one to mistake the two.
‘Do I think he can be elected? I’d be for him, but there’s too much Trump in the party,” said Bova, his childhood friend.
More than that, the party may just be running short on Pence, regardless of his enviable talents.
Understand what matters in Washington. Sign up for the DC Brief newsletter†
More must-read stories from TIME