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Pence plays role of Trump's ambassador to nervous Republicans

In Mike Pence, a soft-spoken former congressman with deep roots in GOP politics, many Republicans hear a reassuring and familiar voice who has mollified some of their concerns.

WASHINGTON - Officially, Mike Pence is the vice president-elect, the head of President-elect Donald Trump's transition team and the governor of Indiana.

Unofficially, some Republicans see a few more titles in front of his name.

"It seems like he's taken on the role of explainer-in-chief," said Rep. Charlie Dent of Pennsylvania, a centrist Republican who did not support Trump in the campaign.

"He's the comforter-in-chief," said Tim Phillips, president of Americans for Prosperity, a conservative group. "That role works . . . because everyone respects his integrity and likes him personally."

After Trump was elected, some Republicans were nervous about how he would govern and how closely his agenda would align with their traditional conservative priorities. In Pence, a soft-spoken former congressman with deep roots in Republican politics, many hear a reassuring and familiar voice who has mollified some of their concerns.

In speeches and conversations with elected officials, donors and other party power brokers, Pence has talked up the next administration's desire to undo President Obama's signature health-care law, nominate a staunchly conservative Supreme Court justice and implement deep tax cuts - policies mainstream Republicans have craved.

When Trump rattles them with unorthodox ideas - as he did when he threatened to impose tariffs on companies shipping operations overseas - Pence seems to always be there to try to soothe their discomfort.

The vice president-elect has also become an ambassador to some of Trump's fiercest Republican critics in the campaign, such as former presidential candidate Carly Fiorina, whom Trump met with Monday, and Sen. Ben Sasse (R., Neb.), who sat down with the vice-president elect last week.

All of this has put Pence on a trajectory to be a potentially powerful vice president. Already, he is drawing comparisons to the last Republican to hold that office, Dick Cheney, who had immense influence in the West Wing.

"My observation is that Mike Pence will be as powerful a vice president in domestic policy as Vice President Cheney was in foreign policy," said Bobbie Kilberg, a longtime Republican fundraiser. "I think there is a significant parallel."

But the value of that power, particularly with Congress, will be closely tied to Trump's popularity with voters.

"If you lose your political stroke and your favorability . . . well then I don't care how good the salesman is then, you're going to have a problem moving the product," said Rep. Tom Cole (R., Okla.), a Pence supporter who noted that Cheney initially could move a lot of votes, but as Bush's popularity declined, so did the vice president's influence on the Hill.

Pence, whose boss does not like to be upstaged, is wary of being viewed as playing an outsize role behind the scenes or as the person who has to explain Trump to fellow Republicans.

"He believes the president-elect has a very unique and clear way of communicating," said Marc Short, a senior adviser to Pence. "He would reject the notion that the president-elect needs to have an explainer-in-chief or a comforter-in-chief."

Trump has repeatedly praised Pence publicly. But he has also sought to make clear who is in charge.

"He is a great guy. That's one of my great decisions. He's a friend of mine, but he's a great guy. Hasn't he done a good job?" Trump asked at a rally in Des Moines last week.

In the span of a few hours one day last week, Pence's impact on the incoming administration could be seen as his outreach to Republicans extended from the hallways of the Capitol building to a glitzy hotel ballroom at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue.

He attended Senate Republicans' weekly lunch on Dec. 6, which he hopes to continue doing when he is in town, and used his remarks to underscore the importance of fighting the health-care law known as Obamacare and assert that tax reform is a real and achievable goal, according to a person familiar with the conversation who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe the private meeting.

Later, Pence met privately with Sasse, one of the most vocal Republican Trump critics during the campaign. Sasse's office called the meeting "productive." Short called Sasse an "up and coming leader" whom Pence and the new administration "look forward to working with."

In the evening, Pence addressed wealthy patrons of the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, at a fundraising dinner in the new Trump International Hotel a few blocks from the White House.

Donors dined on a roasted grape and kale salad and beef tenderloin, and Pence went point by point through Trump's most urgent legislative priorities: repealing Obamacare, reinforcing national defense, putting a conservative jurist on the Supreme Court to replace the late Justice Antonin Scalia and slashing taxes "across the board."

He also defended Trump for helping broker the deal with furnace and air-conditioner manufacturer Carrier to keep about 800 jobs in the United States. The move drew charges of "crony capitalism" from some conservatives.

"Make no mistake about it: Our president-elect and I believe fervently in the free market," Pence said. "But you cannot say you are for free markets and stand by while an avalanche of higher taxes, regulations and big government stifle out the competitiveness of the American economy."

Trump's tweet a few days earlier warning he would slap a 35 percent tariff on products sold in the United States by companies that outsource operations concerned right-leaning groups such as the anti-tax Club for Growth and spurred further worries about Trump's corporate intervention.

During the dinner, Pence once again sought to heal some of the wounds left over from the campaign, inviting Fiorina to stand and the crowd to applaud her for being a "great, great voice" for American conservatism. During the campaign, Fiorina said she was "horrified" by Trump, and Trump once appeared to insult Fiorina's appearance.

Following her meeting with Trump on Monday, Fiorina praised the Cabinet being put together by the president-elect.

"The high quality of people that he's named already says so much about his executive abilities," she told reporters. "But it also says that people recognize the opportunity that our new president-elect has to really make a huge impact on people's lives in this country and on events around the world. So it was an honor for me to be there."

Beyond opening a dialogue between the incoming administration and its critics, Pence has also left a mark on the team Trump is assembling. He championed Rep. Mike Pompeo (R., Kan.) to be nominated for CIA director and Rep. Tom Price (R., Ga.) for health and human services secretary, people familiar with the process said.

But some Pence allies have been passed over. Trump chose former Goldman Sachs executive Steven Mnuchin for treasury secretary, not Rep. Jeb Hensarling, (R., Texas).

Rep. Chris Collins (R., N.Y.), a Trump ally who is serving as the transition team's liaison to Congress, predicted Pence will be the administration's key point person working with GOP congressional leaders. Pence knows many members from his days as the House Republican Conference chairman from 2009 to 2011.

"It will be a vice president with a real meat-and-potatoes job description," Collins said.

Pence likes to introduce himself in speeches as a "Christian, a conservative and a Republican - in that order." Some religious conservative leaders see him as a figure who will give a voice to their causes in the White House.

Tony Perkins, the head of the Family Research Council, has known Pence for two decades. From Pence, Perkins said, he hopes Trump will learn to be open about faith and conservative principles.

"Pence has not compartmentalized his life," Perkins said. "And I think it would be great benefit to the president to do the same. I think he'll have that opportunity, to have someone beside him that is guided by faith and his relationship with God."

The contrasts between Pence and Trump have been clear to many Republicans since Trump tapped him as his running mate in July. But Pence appears determined to try to convince his party that Trump is not all that dissimilar from him - and them.

"I often tell people that, you know, other than a whole lot of zeros, Donald Trump and I have lot in common," Pence said in his speech at the Heritage Foundation dinner.