(NewsNation) — Former Vice President Mike Pence emphasized his deep conservative values during a NewsNation town hall Wednesday night as he advocated for education policy change, backed support for a senator fighting the Pentagon and defended the Trump administration’s handling of the COVID pandemic.
“I'm running to win a better future for American families that are struggling under the failed policies of the Biden administration at home and abroad,” Pence said to NewsNation’s Leland Vittert, who moderated the event at NewsNation headquarters in Chicago.
He conveyed that he would work to "restore a threshold of civility in public life" if elected president.
"I think our politics is more divided than ever before, but I'm not convinced the American people are as divided as our politics," he said. "We need a president who can create the environment where at least we can begin to talk to one another across the aisle again and find those ways that we truly do have common ground."
Pence has been on the campaign trail in the early primary states Iowa and New Hampshire as he looks to gain support in the 2024 Republican presidential primary race.
He also went on the offensive at last month's first GOP debate, touting his experience in the Trump administration and engaging in several back-and-forths with businessman Vivek Ramaswamy. He also defended — as he has consistently done — his decision not to reject Electoral College votes on Jan. 6, 2021, during the certification of the 2024 election.
Pence has thus far struggled to gain traction among voters and is polling at 5%, according to RealClearPolitics averages. That's behind former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley (6%), Ramaswamy (7%), Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (13.3%) and former President Donald Trump (53.6%).
Here are some key positions Pence took during the town hall:
Pentagon needs to ‘stand down’ on abortion policy; Tuberville right
It’s been six months since Sen. Tommy Tuberville, R-Ala., began a blockade on military promotions, leaving the Pentagon with more than 300 vacancies in leadership positions.
Tuberville is protesting a Department of Defense policy that offers time off and travel reimbursement for service members who need to go out of state to receive abortion care.
“The Pentagon should stand down,” Pence said of the standoff. “The idea that generals at the Pentagon on some liberal Democrat agenda are using taxpayer dollars to undermine state laws for protecting unborn children is just wrong.”
Sabrina Singh, deputy press secretary at the Pentagon, said the holdups are forcing military leadership personnel to perform two jobs at once and called it “damaging” in an interview with NewsNation last week.
China needs to be held accountable for COVID pandemic, vaccines tested more
Pence defended his administration’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic and blamed China for shielding what it knows about the virus that took over 1.1 million American lives.
He faulted governors and mayors across the country for instituting lockdowns longer than what the administration thought was necessary.
“The temporary measures in that spring were never intended to be permanent,” Pence said.
He criticized local school districts for choosing to move to online-only instruction, which research has shown set students back.
He expressed concern that the recently approved updated vaccine booster “hasn’t been subjected to tests” common for approving medicines and vaccines. Both the Federal Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have approved the vaccine, which is recommended for all Americans at least 6 months old.
“If we had gotten four more years, there would have never been a vaccine mandate,” he said.
'Gender ideology' in schools, Education Department need to go
Like his political rival Ramaswamy, Pence advocated for the abolishment of the federal Department of Education and said he would work to get rid of “radical gender ideology” in schools.
“It’s just too important to have Washington, D.C., meddling” in school policy, Pence said. “I want to see those funds go back to the states.”
Pence also criticized what he said is “radical gender ideology” being taught in schools, referencing policies that require teachers to refer to students by their preferred pronouns and gender identities.
'Protect our kids'
Pence reiterated his position that gender-affirming care should not be given to anyone under the age of 18. Earlier this year, Pence said he would support a national ban on gender-affirming care for transgender minors and compared it to rules on getting tattoos.
“The idea that we are telling young, impressionable kids that little boys can become girls or little girls can become boys, I just think is wrong,” Pence said Wednesday.
The comment came in response to a question from Melissa McCollister, a professor of social work who asked how Pence would protect members of the transgender community from violence.
“If I'm president of the United States, I'm going to see to the protection of every American and the rights of every American whether that squares with my values or not,” he said. “When it comes to surgical or chemical procedures, I just really believe that we've got to protect our kids from decisions that will affect them the balance of their lives, while at the same time saying that adults can make decisions according to the dictates of their own conscience.”
McCollister was disappointed in Pence’s answer.
“To hear somebody telling me that it's not OK for young children to make decisions about their gender identity, and to ask their school officials for support, protection and help, is appalling,” she said.
Female VP would be considered
Pence’s relationship with his wife and views on marriages sparked headlines in 2017 when a quote resurfaced that he would “never dine alone with a woman.”
So, would he pick a woman to be his vice president?
“You better believe” he would consider it, he said, but he doesn’t want to get ahead of himself. Pence said he’s looking for someone who agrees with his core values.
“We’re going to find that person who is the best qualified, the best prepared and the most committed to the agenda we feel called to advance,” Pence said.
‘American energy’ key to lowering inflation
While inflation is down from last year’s historic highs, the Department of Labor said Wednesday the consumer price index rose 3.7% in August from a year ago, an uptick from July’s 3.2% annual pace.
To tackle inflation, Pence said he would “unleash American energy” and criticized Biden administration policies he argued have contributed to the problem.
“Even though Joe Biden has spent a lot of time and millions of dollars on television telling us Bidenomics is working, the American people know better,” Pence said. “We’ll tackle inflation by putting our fiscal house in order.”
US needs to continue support for Ukraine
Pence has supported Ukraine, and America’s support for the country, since Russia’s invasion in February 2022.
In late June 2023, the former vice president made a surprise visit to Ukraine to meet with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and tour the war-torn country.
He argued Wednesday that President Joe Biden has not effectively explained America’s national interest in ensuring a Ukrainian victory.
“I am convinced that if the Ukrainian military doesn't stop and repel that Russian invasion, it's not going to be too long before that Russian army crosses a border that our men and women in uniform are going to have to go and fight under our NATO treaty,” he said.
He has called on the U.S. to deliver more military aid to the country and criticized GOP rivals who have questioned the ongoing U.S. involvement, saying there is no room in the party for “Putin apologists” and pushing back against those who want the U.S. to take on a more limited role on the world stage.
“You achieve peace through strength, and by using what amounts to 3% of our national defense budget, as we have so far to support the Ukrainian military, let them push back the Russians, I think that'll discourage China from its military ambitions in the Asia-Pacific, especially with regards to Taiwan,” he said.
Senate leaders in both parties have expressed support for the Ukraine funding. However, House Speaker Kevin McCarthy has previously pledged there will be no “blank check” to Ukraine.
Party needs to move on from Trump
Pence is running against his former boss Trump, whom he says is unfit to serve because of his actions during the Jan. 6, 2021, riots at the U.S. Capitol.
In the days leading up to Jan. 6, 2021, Trump pressured Pence to overturn President Joe Biden’s election victory as he presided over the ceremonial certification of the results. Pence refused, and when rioters stormed the Capitol, some chanted that they wanted to “hang Mike Pence.”
“I hear the former president now shying away from American leadership on the world stage,” Pence said on why he believes Trump is not the right candidate for the party. “I believe different times call for different leadership.”
But the former president touts his large lead in national polls as evidence a majority of voters in the party still prefer him as their 2024 candidate. He frequently posts screenshots of poll numbers on his Truth Social page.