Mike Pence campaigns with an eye on his own future

As Gov. Mike Pence of Indiana was extolling Donald Trump to a crowd here on Tuesday as a "good man" who "speaks from his heart," Trump was holding a rally of his own just a few states south, with a decidedly different message — suggesting that gun owners could take action against Hillary Clinton.

Moments later, stepping down from the stage, Pence found himself in a familiar position, trying to explain away Trump’s comments.

“Of course not, no,” Pence said, when asked by a local news affiliate if his running mate was calling for his supporters to take up arms against the Democratic nominee.

Less than a month after becoming the Republican nominee for vice president, Mike Pence — Midwestern calm and folksy to Trump’s controversial and brash — has emerged as the Republican ticket’s cleaner-up in chief, a role that has thrust him deftly, if at times uncomfortably, into the spotlight in his quest to help elect Trump president.

But behind the scenes, Pence and his team of loyalists are waging an equally challenging campaign, hoping to position him as a compelling national politician for a post-2016 landscape. Even if the Republican ticket fails in the battle for the White House, Pence wants to preserve his future viability, a goal that has created a delicate dance for him — leaving him wary of offending Trump and his base, while also eager to ingratiate himself with the Republican establishment.

So far, Pence has performed this awkward two-step quite nimbly.

During one recent week, for instance, he found himself staking out different ground from his running mate on three separate occasions: over Trump's suggestion that Russia hack Hillary Clinton's emails; over Trump's criticisms of a Gold Star family; and over Trump's initial comments, since reversed, that he was not prepared to endorse Speaker Paul D. Ryan in his primary contest.

Yet each time, Pence managed to do so carefully, without angering the top of the ticket.

“Mike will keep his style,” said Frederick S. Klipsch, the chairman of Hoosiers for Quality Education and the treasurer of Pence’s campaigns since 2011. “He’s a man of integrity, he’s a man of high values, and he won’t compromise that. I think Donald Trump would not expect Mike Pence to do anything other than be himself.”

Pence and Trump were always an unlikely pairing — an ostentatious, thrice-married Manhattanite and a mild-mannered Midwestern governor, bound together more by mutual need and ambition than actual chemistry. (Joining the Republican ticket, after all, plucked Pence out of a tough re-election fight that could have ended in an embarrassing defeat.)

But Pence’s transition to the Trump ticket has largely exceeded both teams’ hopes — not unlike an arranged marriage that has flourished beyond either family’s expectations.

On the campaign trail, Pence echoes Trump’s general message (saying his running mate will put “safety and security” first), vouches for his character (calling him, at stop after stop, “a good man” who would make a “great president”), and adopts a posture of benevolent amusement — light chuckling, as if at a wayward child — when Trump skirts near the controversial.

“He has been so great,” Trump said, at a recent news conference. “Honestly, he’s been even better than I thought, OK? Better.”

Pence’s strengths, aides said, are his discipline in staying on message; his fundraising prowess; and his ability to connect with the party’s conservative and religious base.

He views himself as a loyal soldier, eager to tell the Republican nominee’s story to voters, though Trump has also encouraged him to talk about his record as governor of Indiana. The two men talk by phone daily when they are not together, and Pence has taken to calling Trump “my new boss” on the trail.

The Indiana governor is also reaching out to prominent Republicans, like Sen. John McCain of Arizona and Charlie Sykes, the Wisconsin radio host who is vehemently opposed to Trump, holding private meetings when he passes through their states.

And his team has quietly reinstated the press credentials of news outlets like Politico and The Washington Post, which Trump has barred from his own events.

Pence has better favorability ratings than Trump, according to a new Monmouth University poll, with 33 percent of likely voters viewing him favorably, compared with just 26 percent for Trump.

People close to Pence’s expanding circle, however, said that some in his orbit were taken aback by what they saw from Trump and his campaign during the initial rollout, especially the scattershot Trump operation and the lack of planning. They have also worried that Pence may be sullied by the controversies of his running mate.

And Pence has largely been given control over his own message, though his team still runs most everything by the Trump operation. And Trump has seemed unbothered when Pence has diverged slightly from him on the campaign trail.

Nonetheless, there seems to be an unspoken rule that the No. 2 will show proper deference to the top of the ticket.

After Pence decided to publicly endorse Ryan despite Trump’s early misgivings, Trump made sure to tell a crowd in Maine that Pence had explicitly sought his permission.

“He said: ‘Would you mind if I endorsed? I won’t do that if that could cause any complication or problems. I would absolutely not do that,’” Trump said, recounting a phone conversation he had had with Pence, before telling him, “Go ahead and do it, 100 percent.”