INDIANAPOLIS – It was just two years ago that Indiana Gov. Mike Pence entered the Trumpian twilight zone. Those close to him saw it as a deal with the devil. Others believed it would be his clearest path to the presidency that he had coveted since his childhood. What commenced in Indianapolis, Westfield, New York and then Cleveland in July 2016 has been Vice President Pence’s odyssey, with the final chapters of how this ends unwritten, unknowable, and perhaps, unfathomable.
 
In the Pence worldview of ambition, he was climbing into the shoes of Harry Truman, Richard Nixon, Lyndon Johnson and George H.W. Bush, turning the “heartbeat away” office as entry into the pantheon of 45. Or, he could be consigned to Vice President John Nance Garner’s “warm bucket” of “spit” occupied by Hubert H. Humphrey, Walter Mondale and Al Gore who aspired and fell short.
 
On July 24, 2016, in Cleveland, we heard Pence cut through the myriad of controversies surrounding the GOP nominee. “Donald Trump gets it,” Pence said in his half-hour speech in primetime. “He’s a doer in a game usually reserved for talkers. He doesn’t tiptoe around a thousand new rules of political correctness. He’s his own man, distinctly American, and where else would he find a following in the land of the free and home of the brave?”

Ten days prior, Gov. Pence was a precarious incumbent, facing a tough reelection rematch against Democrat John Gregg. He had been bruised by the religious freedom controversies, a mediocre executive who had inherited Republican legislative super-majorities he used to fashion a presidential aspirant resume. In April 2015, he seemed to be a political dead man walking. 

He was rescued by Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort (facing a tax evasion trial as we speak) and the Trump children. Pence auditioned at Westfield, dined with Trump and after a “flat tire” on his jet, had breakfast with the nominee at the Governor’s Residence. Trump picked Pence after wavering for a couple days. It would be the political odd couple of our age: The sunny, middle class, devout but calculatingly ambitious governor with the profane, adulterous, Manhattan billionaire. And they pulled off the upset of the ages.
 
It probably wouldn’t have happened without Mike Pence. It was a tormented campaign with Trump insulting everyone from Gold Star mothers to Sen. John McCain. There was the “October surprise,” or so we thought, when the Access Hollywood audio of Trump surfaced. Here was the 60-year-old Trump, who had been a lifelong Democrat, bragging about extra-marital conquests and “grabbing” female genitalia with this stunning line: “When you’re a star they let you do it. You can do anything.”
 
Of course, the real “October surprise” was FBI Director James Comey’s bombshell that Anthony Weiner’s laptop had recommenced the federal probe of Hillary Clinton. The reality was that the FBI was investigating the Trump’s campaign ties with Russia, not Clinton. America was oblivious.
 
It was Pence who cut through all the moral dust storms. He spent the last weeks of the campaign beseeching Republicans to “come home.” In Iowa, a woman named Rhonda talked of taking to the streets to combat President Hillary. “Don’t say that,” Pence responded. “There’s a revolution coming on November the 8th. I promise you.”
 
Promises made, promises kept.

Today, Vice President Pence is an avowed defender of Trump, who is facing an uncertain future with the Russian collusion probe. Pence’s transformation has been breathtaking. He was once a free-trader, telling the Detroit Economic Club in 2010, “The free market is what made America’s economy the greatest in the world, and we cannot falter in our willingness to defend it.” Today he defends Trump’s tariffs. He has positioned Trump to name two pro-life U.S. Supreme Court justices with Pence’s goal of consigning Roe v. Wade to the “ash heap of history.”

Conservative pundits are critical, with the Washington Post’s George Will writing, ““Donald Trump, with his feral cunning, knew. The oleaginous Mike Pence, with his talent for toadyism and appetite for obsequiousness, could, Trump knew, become America’s most repulsive public figure.”  Erick Erickson blasts Pence for abetting a “shallow demagogue.”

In the next several months, several books will flesh out Pence. Former Associated Press reporter Tom LoBianco will portray Pence as the “gatekeeper” to the White House political operations and donors. “When you have the vice president running all the donor maintenance, the political operation, the mid-terms, going out there campaigning heavily, he does have a natural role and it is extremely political in this White House,” LoBianco explained.

One of President Trump’s five biographers, Michael D’Antonio, along with Peter Eisner, will publish “The Shadow President: The Truth About Mike Pence.”  It will be a sharply critical account, with D’Antonio telling New York Times columnist Frank Bruni, “People don’t understand what Pence is.” Which is? “A religious zealot. He is absolutely certain that his moral view should govern public policy.”

One thing is for sure: Pence is a heartbeat away from the oldest elected president, and one facing daunting ethical and legal challenges. Pence’s gambit is the classic straight razor. Trump’s demise could make him the 46th president. A tangled ankle in this web could bring Pence historic ignominy.

The columnist is publisher of Howey Politics Indiana at www.howeypolitics.com. Find him on Facebook and Twitter @hwypol.