CONCORD, N.H. — When Mike Pence walked up last week to the storied New Hampshire office where presidential candidates file paperwork to appear on the ballot, cameras clicked, reporters shuffled after him and he smiled.
No one cheered.
One family who was standing in the hallway had filled in behind him, and when he saw the children holding American flags, he remarked: “You really draw a crowd.”
But the few New Hampshire voters who turned out for the former vice president were far outnumbered by the news media.
Four months after launching his campaign with an embrace of traditional conservatism and a rejection of his former running mate Donald Trump, Pence, who once sat a heartbeat away from the presidency, now stands at a difficult crossroads. Plagued by financial problems, low polling numbers and a message that hasn’t resonated with the party base, he has been forced to confront tough realities this fall about the future of his campaign.
At the New Hampshire State House, Pence signed a declaration and handed over a $1,000 check, officially seeking to add himself to the first-in-the-nation GOP primary ballot. Pence told reporters he is a “small-town guy from Indiana” seeking the nation’s highest office and the best to lead his party. He took questions about his former running mate’s recent statements, his campaign’s troubled financial state and the chance he might not qualify for the third debate next month.
Pence warned that “it may be obvious in the days ahead that other campaigns have more money than ours.”
It was. Days later, his latest campaign finance filings showed he’d raised $3.3 million and spent almost the same amount in the third quarter of the year. His campaign also ran up a debt of $620,000, and Pence gave $150,000 of his money to the effort.
The Pence campaign has also made some cuts to staff, according to a person familiar with the decision who spoke on the condition of anonymity to talk candidly about a move that has not been announced publicly. Those changes come as Pence has consistently struggled to gain traction in recent months in both polling and fundraising.
The extent of the cuts was not immediately clear. Pence campaign spokesman Devin O’Malley declined to comment.
It’s not clear whether Pence will reach the threshold of 70,000 unique donors to qualify for the third debate, which will be in Miami on Nov. 8.
“It’s not about money, it’s about votes,” Pence told reporters in Concord.
Polling shows that votes for Pence are also in short supply.
Pence runs behind Trump, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, former U.N. ambassador Nikki Haley and entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, according to most polls, trailing with a single-digit percentage support. All of the candidates have struggled to make up for Trump’s dominating lead. In New Hampshire, Pence polls at 2 percent, according to a recent CBS News/YouGov poll. His campaign is betting heavily on a strong performance in Iowa, where Pence is seeking to connect with evangelical voters who form a crucial voting bloc.
The day after the filing in New Hampshire, Pence spoke at the First in the Nation summit in Nashua, where every candidate but Trump had made their pitch. Pence, the last to speak, had smiled and shook hands with a few of the audience members as he walked through the main hall. But as he left, the event staff was already stacking chairs and attendees were bidding farewell, some not even registering that the former vice president was feet away with a small entourage in tow.
At small-scale events with few attendees compared with other candidates, Pence has sought to distance himself from his former running mate. While he says their administration helped business grow, protected the border and put money back in Americans’ pockets, he tells voters that he can provide the most conservative leadership for the party.
He has also hinted at the former president’s fixation on re-litigating the last election. And that message has appealed to some — to an extent.
Chris Clark, an Iowa caucus-goer at a Pence meet-and-greet this month, said he was considering the former vice president, but he said he liked DeSantis “a little bit more.” He had grown tired of Trump’s rhetoric claiming falsely his 2020 election was stolen, and DeSantis was a fresh face.
Pence has yet to make any noticeable progress in a party staunchly backing the former president, who has called him “delusional” and “not a very good person.” Trump mocked Pence’s low polling after Pence’s testimony was revealed in a federal indictment of Trump.
Pence rejected Trump’s pressure to try to reverse the election in 2020, certifying now-President Biden’s win after Trump supporters had stormed the Capitol, some chanting “Hang Mike Pence.”
Pence has gone after other rivals at the debates, which Trump has skipped, and rebuked some of Trump’s recent comments. When Trump referred to Hezbollah as “very smart” and criticized Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu after the Hamas attacks, Pence called the words “incomprehensible” in a question-and-answer session with reporters in the Concord office.
After those comments, he thanked the news media and walked out the back door just as a crowd of supporters for Haley filled the empty hallway he had just walked in, the family he had just shook hands with among them, chanting “Nikki, Nikki, Nikki.”
LeVine reported from Washington. Josh Dawsey in Washington contributed to this report.