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Pence tries to douse David Duke fire

After months of behind-the-scenes outreach to Republicans wary of their bombastic presidential nominee, Mike Pence hit Capitol Hill on Tuesday for his most overt effort yet to fire up loyalists, soothe the worried and maybe even win over a convert or two.

A big part of Pence's effort: humanizing Donald Trump to rank-and-file lawmakers who don't know the billionaire former reality-TV star.

Pence addressed the House Republican Conference on Tuesday morning and then huddled with Senate Republicans at their weekly lunch. He was also scheduled to headline a fundraiser, while weaving in private meetings throughout the day.

"It was, for me, an emotional return to a group of men and women that I served with for 12 years and so admire," the former congressman said at a news conference after the closed-door session with House Republicans Tuesday morning.

Pence thanked the Republican leaders for their support of the Trump-Pence ticket and praised Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) for a vision that "so aligns" with that of Trump. Ryan has criticized Trump repeatedly during the campaign over his incendiary comments.

"We're very confident that we can bring real change in real time," said the always-on-message Pence.

Pence quickly tried to douse one political fire from Monday: his refusal to call white supremacist David Duke "deplorable" during a CNN interview.

"I have no idea why this man keeps coming up," Pence said. "Donald Trump and I have denounced David Duke repeatedly."

"The simple fact is that I am not in the name-calling business," Pence added.


And yet, Pence was under pressure Tuesday from fellow Republicans to more forcefully denounce Duke's views. After his meeting with the House Republican conference, Pence met privately with Sen. Mike Lee, who told the vice-presidential nominee that Republicans must call Duke's racism "deplorable," according to a spokesman for the Utah senator.

Still, the Duke issue did not surface during Pence's private meeting with Senate Republicans, which was a largely cordial affair with none of the tense fireworks that characterized the nominee's own powwow with Senate Republicans in early July. And in addition to Lee, Pence also met privately with Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, according to one Hill GOP aide — two Senate Republicans who have pointedly declined to endorse Trump.

Others who met privately with Pence: Ryan, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, and Indiana Sen. Dan Coats.

Cruz declined to answer Tuesday whether he would vote for Trump now, but emphasized that Pence is a "good man, he's a friend, he's a strong conservative."

Inside the lunch at the National Republican Senatorial Committee headquarters, GOP senators urged the campaign to keep a disciplined focus on policy, rather than chasing shiny objects in the news cycle, one attendee said. Pence also told Senate Republicans that the Trump campaign will continue to ramp up its operations in key swing states, likening it to a "billion-dollar start-up," the attendee said.

The contrast in styles between Trump and his mild-mannered No. 2 was clear: While Trump engaged in testy exchanges with GOP senators such as Jeff Flake of Arizona during his meeting in July, Pence eagerly distributed his cell phone number to Senate Republicans and told them: "Please call."

"It's the same cell phone number he's always had," Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) said. "I've used it before."

Pence also underscored to senators that maintaining control of the chamber was a top priority for the campaign: "He was very concerned about the Senate races and making sure that he and Trump do whatever they can to help us keep the majority," said Sen. David Perdue (R-Ga.), a top Hill surrogate for the campaign.

And Pence told stories that tried to humanize Trump. During the lunch, Pence told senators that Trump was asked recently what percentage of the African-American vote he would be able to win in four years, and Trump responded: "90 percent."

"And Pence said, 'When I heard it, I started to laugh. That's vintage Donald Trump. So optimistic,'" recalled Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.).

In his public comments, Pence worked to keep the focus on Hillary Clinton — even when questioned about Duke.

When pressed on some of the racist elements of Trump's supporters, Pence drew a comparison to when the time the father of the Orlando, Florida, shooter's father attended a Hillary Clinton rally — something that Pence sharply criticized her for at the time. Pence said Tuesday that Duke's support should be considered in the same light.

"I would draw no more conclusion of that man's [Duke's] expressions of support than I would the fact the father of a terrorist who killed 49 Americans was seen at a Hillary Clinton rally cheering her on and said he was there because she was good on national security," Pence said. "And I would submit to you, this is all a distraction. I get it. I understand why Hillary Clinton and her campaign want to change the subject after that speech on Friday night."


Pence also lashed out at Clinton for describing half of Trump's supporters as a "basket of deplorables" during a private fundraiser.

"I've never heard a major party candidate in the United States speak about the American people with such contempt," he said. It's "one more reason that disqualifies her."

For Pence, Tuesday's whirlwind through Capitol Hill marked a "homecoming of sorts" -- in the words of one aide -- to the body where he served for a dozen years, including in House Republican leadership.

His former colleagues gave Pence the welcome of a long-lost friend, as the Indiana governor worked to convince House Republicans that the front-runner is actually far different than his public persona.

"He talked about ... Trump's moments of kindness," Rep. David Schweikert (R-Ariz.) said. "In many ways, it was reassuring, because you hear a very different interpretation of Donald Trump than you see in the news cycle."

Schweikert added: "Look, we trust Mike Pence because we know him."

Rep. Kevin Brady (R-Texas) said Pence "wished Clinton well in her health" but said Republicans should hold Clinton accountable for her comments about Trump supporters being "deplorable."

"[Pence] said, 'We are literally praying for her recovery,' but he pivoted quickly to the contest of ideas," Brady said.

However, Trump's image problems were raised as well. Rep. Jeff Fortenberry (R-Neb.), according to sources present, relayed a story to Pence about the congressman's daughter saying that Trump "hated women."

During the meeting with House Republicans, National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Greg Walden of Oregon went into great detail about polling down ballot. Trump isn't having a negative impact in any competitive races, Walden asserted, and in some cases is having a positive influence.



Pence's efforts to woo congressional Republicans have been part of his work as running mate since his selection. Many House Republicans adore him for his steadfast conservative social values on issues such as abortion and gay marriage.

In an early signal of his conciliatory ways, he chose Ryan to introduce him at the Republican National Convention weeks before Trump could even bring himself to endorse Ryan in his primary. And just hours after Trump, in a Washington Post interview, refused to endorse Ryan to maintain his seat, raising eyebrows and speculation that their already tense relationship had hit a new low, Pence threw his name behind the speaker.

Even as many vulnerable Senate Republicans have kept their distance from Pence, he has continued to vouch for them on the trail.

Heather Caygle and Burgess Everett contributed to this report.