By Tim Reid
(Reuters) – Former Vice President Mike Pence, who once served Donald Trump loyally, on Wednesday announced he would challenge his former boss for the Republican presidential nomination and blasted Trump for his role in the 2021 attack on the U.S. Capitol.
In a speech in Iowa, which kicks off the Republican nominating contest next year, Pence issued his most forceful condemnation to date of Trump’s part in the Jan.6, 2021 riot, when Trump was trying to overturn his 2020 election defeat to Democratic U.S. President Joe Biden.
“I believe that anyone who puts themselves over the Constitution should never be president of the United States, and anyone who asked someone else to put them over the Constitution should never be president of the United States again,” Pence said.
Pence joins a crowded field of Republican White House hopefuls challenging Trump for the party’s presidential nomination. Former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie entered the race on Tuesday, while North Dakota Governor Doug Burgum jumped in on Wednesday, raising the number of candidates into double digits.
It is extremely rare for a vice president to run against a president he served under, and it has happened just a handful of times in U.S. history. Pence enters the Republican presidential primary with a mountain to climb, polling at just 5% and trailing Trump by 44 points, according to a Reuters/Ipsos opinion poll in May.
Pence, who turned 64 on Wednesday, joins a nominating contest that is currently a two-man race between Trump and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis.
The growing number of candidates could clear the way for a Trump victory, because they risk splintering the anti-Trump vote, letting the former president clinch the nomination like he did in similar circumstances in 2016, party members and strategists said.
Pence will follow his announcement with a CNN town hall event Wednesday evening.
Pence, a conservative Christian, will focus much of his campaigning on Iowa. The state has a significant number of evangelical voters among its Republican electorate. Pence hopes a strong showing in the state will give him momentum and propel him into contention.
During Trump’s tumultuous four years in the White House, Pence repeatedly defended him through multiple scandals.
But he incurred the wrath of Trump and his supporters when, as ceremonial president of the Senate, he refused to stop the certification of Biden’s victory over Trump in the 2020 election.
Pence said he had no constitutional authority to meddle with the election results. Trump supporters stormed the Capitol during the certification process on Jan. 6, 2021, forcing Pence, lawmakers and staff to flee to safety.
In Twitter posts, Trump accused Pence of cowardice. Some rioters chanted for Pence to be hanged.
In his announcement speech on Wednesday, Pence described it as a “tragic day”, adding: “President Trump was wrong.”
“The American people deserve to know that on that day, President Trump also demanded that I choose between him and the Constitution. Now voters will be faced with the same choice. I chose the Constitution and I always will,” he said.
Trump, in remarks to conservative commentator Todd Starnes on Monday, wished Pence luck, but criticized him for allowing the certification of the 2020 election results.
“We had a strong, nice relationship until the very end,” Trump said. “We disagreed on that last moment in time on that very issue.”
Many of Trump’s diehard supporters view Pence’s refusal to overturn the election result as treachery, and would seek to block his path to the nomination.
Pence, who served as governor of Indiana and is a former congressman, still embraces many of Trump’s policies while portraying himself as an even-keeled and consensus-oriented alternative. On Wednesday he said he was “proud of the Trump-Pence administration.”
Pence also went after what he called Biden’s “disastrous presidency,” blaming him for inflation, high fuel prices and for doing the bidding of the “radical left.”
The success of Pence’s campaign will hinge on whether he can attract enough backers of Trump’s policies who are turned off by the former president’s rhetoric and behavior to build a viable coalition.
He joins a field that now includes Christie, who was an adviser to Trump’s 2016 White House campaign but has since become a vocal critic over Trump’s false claims that the 2020 election was rigged.
Christie, 60, launched his campaign on Tuesday with a withering attack on Trump, calling him a “self-serving mirror hog” and faulting other rivals for avoiding direct confrontation with the former president.
(Reporting by Tim Reid; Additional reporting by Susan Heavey; Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Alistair Bell)
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