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Is Pence running for president in 2024?

CONCORD, N.H. — Vice President Mike Pence showed up in the first-in-the-nation voting state for two key events Thursday — and more than a few Republican activists saw it as the kickoff of the 2024 Republican primary.

Pence visited the secretary of state’s office to put President Donald Trump and himself on the ballot. Then he was on to Politics and Eggs, a primary tradition that countless presidential hopefuls from both parties have made their first stop in the state.

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Current and former Republican party officials, and Pence’s own camp, said the visit was aimed solely at winning a state Trump lost by 3,000 votes. But there’s more going on behind the scenes, with Pence and others, that point to four years from now.

Gov. John Kasich is also in the state Thursday — with much less fanfare — for a book signing at the University of New Hampshire. Sen. Ted Cruz was in New Hampshire last week to help raise money for former House speaker Bill O’Brien, who is now running for Senate. Cruz will be back next week to speak to conservative activists at a prominent free-market think tank.

Pence largely stuck to his script during his visit, talking about the state’s opioid epidemic, how deregulation and trade agreements are helping local businesses and tax cuts.

“I’m excited to be in New Hampshire again and again,” he said.

Ovide Lamontagne, an influential Republican Party leader, said the visit was an opportunity for Pence to get out of Trump’s shadow and show off his own conservative chops. He said if Pence is interesting in running, he needs to discuss his policy credentials.

“We need to hear him talk about those things,” he said. “People don’t know Mike Pence and they don’t know the substance of the man he is.”

Party activists view the visits by Pence and others as clues about the prospective candidates’ political intentions.

“This is definitely the first view of Pence running for 2024,” said Jennifer Horn, the former state Republican Party chairwoman. “It’s disingenuous for him or anyone to suggest otherwise.”

“I think it’s obvious, and I think anyone who suggests otherwise is just being political about it,” said Horn, who also served as Gov. Bill Weld’s campaign manager for two months before resigning over disagreements on strategy.

Activists said there are a number of signals they’ll be watching over the next year as early indicators: Which of the potential 2024 hopefuls comes to campaign for Gov. Chris Sununu, who is up for reelection? Who raises money for the Republican who will challenge Democratic Gov. Jeanne Shaheen? Who spends time building relationships with key GOP players in the state?

“Goodwill doesn’t go away and friends don’t fade,” said Matt Mowers, a former executive director of the state party who went on to serve as a senior adviser to Trump at the state department.

Sununu is one of those key Republicans with whom Pence will meet. The governor is meeting Pence at the airport and spending one-on-one time with him during an approximately 25-minute car ride between events. He also stood behind Pence as he filed the campaign paperwork.

Sununu said he plans to discuss with Pence the party’s political prospects in the 2020 election. Sununu dismissed the idea that Pence is positioning himself for 2024.

“Absolutely not,” Sununu said in an interview. “This is all about 2020. The president is going to make a strong commitment here and he knows he can win in New Hampshire.”

It’s important to remember that Pence — unlike Cruz or Kasich or Sen. Marco Rubio — hasn’t amassed the Rolodex in New Hampshire that comes from running in a presidential primary before, said Greg Moore, state director of Americans for Prosperity.

“Being the vice president gives you a great perch to start building out relationships and gives you a great entrée for someone who, to be frank, was a governor of a state, Indiana, that we hadn’t seen much of before,” Moore said.

Jim Merrill, a Manchester-based political operative who served as Rubio’s senior adviser in 2016, said the senator’s chief focus is working on issues in Washington. That said, he is quietly maintaining relationships with Republicans here, making sure to send birthday notes to his old contacts.

“He made a lot of friends here in New Hampshire during the 2016 primary,” Merrill said. “We’ll leave a light on and see what the future brings.”

Cruz may have a leg up given his long-standing relationships with libertarian-minded Republicans. His decision to headline a fundraiser for the Josiah Bartlett Center, a free-market think tank, is a clear sign he’s keeping up his rapport with some of the state’s leading conservatives.

“I think he’s clearly stoking the embers,” Mowers said. “Guys like Cruz haven’t kept it a secret he may want to run for office again. I’m sure he’s keeping track of every business card he gets on those trips.”

Horn said Cruz been been eyeing a sequel since the 2016 convention, when he refused to endorse Trump.

“When he told the activists in their room they should vote their conscience, that was the beginning of his 2024 campaign,” she said.

O’Brien said Cruz was happy to headline what was a successful fundraiser for his primary race for Senate to take on Shaheen. He said the two did not talk about presidential aspirations.

Corey Lewandowski, the Trump ally who’s been dangling the idea of jumping into the Senate primary, stood behind Pence as he filed his paperwork at the Secretary of State’s office Thursday.

Activists said others they’re watching for 2024 clues are Sen. Ben Sasse of Nebraska; Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas; Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky; former ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley; and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

The official line from the party is they’re focused on flipping the state for Trump, reelecting the governor and winning back the Legislature after losing it to Democrats last year.

“We’re all focused on getting elected in 2020,” said Chairman Stephen Stepanek. “You can ask me these questions again the day after the election.”

Source: Politics, Policy, Political News Top Stories

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