DES MOINES, Iowa — Mike Pence musters all of his Midwestern earnestness as he describes Donald Trump as “a man of faith.” He says the Republican nominee is “a man I’ve prayed with and gotten to know on a personal level.”
The description, in an interview with The Associated Press, stands in sharp relief to Trump’s public profile over much of his career: a twice-divorced former playboy who has boasted of his sexual exploits, flaunted his wealth, used crass insults and made sweeping generalizations about whole races.
Getting tens of millions of white evangelicals to accept Pence’s portrait of Trump is critical to Republican hopes for capturing the White House. It’s not a question of whether Trump will win more of the white evangelical vote than rival Hillary Clinton. He will. But Trump needs to win that vote by overwhelming margins and with a high turnout.
Slight changes in loyalty could decide the outcomes in critical states including North Carolina, Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Virginia.
So Pence, the vice presidential nominee, is on a mission across America’s Bible Belt to persuade evangelicals to put their faith in Trump.
Raised Catholic but now a protestant evangelical, Pence is the ideal emissary. While Trump has wavered on abortion and same-sex marriage, Pence’s conservative credentials are impeccable. And while Trump has been shaky on religion, Pence’s evangelical beliefs and political persona are deeply intertwined. His signature line: “I’m a Christian, a conservative and a Republican – in that order.”
Pence’s language and mannerism are familiar to Christians who call themselves “born again.” The Indiana governor quotes Biblical passages freely and was at ease telling Colorado pastors last week of his college conversion, recalling that he was “overwhelmed with gratitude” that “Jesus had died for all the sins of the world, (and) somewhere in there he died for me.”
Republicans hope that gives him credibility as Pence insists Trump is a “good man who will make a great president.”
“Evangelicals have to be convinced that you’re at least a good person, even if you aren’t all-in on the lifestyle,” says Tim O’Donnell, a 64-year-old independent in Colorado Springs, Colorado, who came to hear Pence at a recent round-table with church leaders. O’Donnell said he remains unsure about whether can vote for Trump. Most evangelicals, he explained, “aren’t going to vote for Hillary,” but some “just aren’t comfortable voting for Trump either.”
White evangelicals cast about a quarter of 2012 ballots. Nearly 8 in 10 of them voted for Republican Mitt Romney over President Barack Obama. A recent AP-Gfk poll showed Trump garnering about 7 in 10 white evangelicals, with the rest split between Clinton and Libertarian Gary Johnson. Trump has attempted some outreach to black evangelicals, an overwhelmingly Democratic group, as well.
Trump aides point to their candidate’s strong showing among white evangelicals on his way to the Republican nomination. Trump has backing from many evangelical leaders, including Jerry Falwell Jr., president of Liberty University, the nation’s most high-profile evangelical college.
But the Republican nominee has been criticized by others. Some Southern Baptist Convention leaders dislike his opposition to admitting Syrian refugees to the United States. And Pence’s schedule, heavy in recent weeks with visits to churches and social conservative groups, suggests the Trump campaign knows it has work to do.
Trump and Pence emphasize the policy promises Republicans typically offer white evangelicals: Supreme Court justices and other federal judges who oppose same-sex marriage and abortion rights, an expansion of “school choice,” and unyielding support for Israel in the Middle East. Trump has added a new incentive, pledging to strike down a federal prohibition on churches engaging in explicit political activity.
Trump is a Presbyterian who says he “loves my church” and tells of being influenced by the famous pastor and author Norman Vincent Peale. But he raised eyebrows last year at an Iowa forum year when he said he’d never explicitly sought God’s forgiveness. He’ll only occasionally read scriptural passage from notes — and in January, drew mockery for reading from “Two Corinthians,” rather than “Second Corinthians.”
Pence says the distinctions are merely stylistic. “I think it’s fairly obvious to people that we express ourselves differently,” Pence told AP. “Our experiences are different. But I think we come from the same place.”
Pence said he believes “people hear (Trump’s) sincerity” and “his commitment to the causes they cherish,” and that will be enough.
The Rev. Mark Harris of Charlotte, North Carolina’s First Baptist Church says Pence’s consistency should give evangelicals confidence. Harris, who previously supported Mike Huckabee and then Texas Sen. Ted Cruz before backing Trump, adds another factor: preventing a Clinton victory.
“We wish we had somebody that checked all the boxes, who fits the profile,” Harris said. He said evangelicals would like to see someone who can get something done, “even if he “isn’t the greatest spiritual leader.”
Still, that hasn’t convinced Michael Farris, a leading national advocate of the home-schooling movement and a Trump critic.
Farris welcomed Pence recently to the Home School Legal Defense Association’s national convention in North Carolina. Pence told AP he privately made his case to Farris. But afterward, Farris reaffirmed on his Facebook page that he won’t endorse Trump.
Following the presidential debate Monday, Farris ratcheted up his argument. Trump, he posted, “should step aside and let Mike Pence take on Hillary.”
AP Polling Director Emily Swanson contributed. Follow Barrow on Twitter at https://www.twitter.com/BillBarrowAP