When Vice President Pence cut short his Asia trip to return to Washington to help hammer out deals on Obamacare and funding the government, many conservative activists cheered.
"Pence taking a more proactive role in domestic policy is extremely comforting to anyone who wants to know the Republican Party is still Reagan's Republican Party," said Americans for Tax Reform president Grover Norquist.
The vice president returned to Washington as Republican congressional majorities have struggled to come up with a plan to replace Obamacare and face a Friday deadline to extend the continuing resolution funding federal government operations without a partial shutdown.
A senior White House official acknowledged that the Trump administration was caught off-guard by the divisions in the GOP conference. "There were so many personal conflicts within the conference that the path was a little harder for us to overcome," the official said of Obamacare repeal.
That's where Pence, a former chairman of the House Republican Conference and onetime leader of the conservative Republican Study Committee in addition to his service as governor of Indiana, comes in.
"He and the president are obviously very close so I think that members of Congress can assume that when Vice President Pence lays down a position he is in fact speaking for the president," said Gary Bauer, a longtime social conservative leader and former domestic policy adviser to President Reagan. "But he has the additional advantage of coming out of the Congress and being grounded in sort of a Reagan conservatism while also understanding conservative populism."
"I think it puts him in a unique position of being able to bridge any gaps that may exist between both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue," Bauer added.
While Pence is a movement conservative of long standing, President Trump campaigned on a more idiosyncratic platform that combined a thoroughgoing nationalism and populism with more traditional Republican positions. Squaring that circle has sometimes been as difficult as bringing together fractious GOP legislative majorities.
"Nobody questioned Congressman Pence's commitment to core conservative ideas," said Bauer. "On the other side of that coin, I think Vice President Pence understands that this has to be a successful Republican administration."
Pence is following in the footsteps of past vice presidents who have more experience in politics and government than the presidents they serve. "Trump hasn't been doing this for 20 years," said Norquist. "He is a delegator and he has delegated wisely."
Joe Biden, who came to the vice presidency after 36 years in the Senate, was crucial to shepherding legislation through Congress. President Obama had only served in the Senate for four years.
Similarly, Dick Cheney assumed the vice presidency having previously served as secretary of defense and was once the second-ranking Republican in the House. In 2001, he had to take seriously his role as president of a deadlocked 50-50 Senate where he held a tie-breaking vote. Cheney also maintained an office in the House. President George W. Bush had never before held federal office, though he was a two-term governor of Texas.
Yet his father George H.W. Bush had been a congressman, Republican National Committee chairman, ambassador to the United Nations, special representative to China and director of the CIA before becoming vice president while President Reagan had only been a two-term governor of California.
Even so, Pence's connections run deep. He has a long association with counselor to the president Kellyanne Conway, who managed Trump's 2016 campaign. White House legislative affairs director Marc Short was a chief of staff to the Republican Study Committee under Pence. He has brought other movement conservatives into the Trump fold.
"I think from the time then candidate Trump named Mike Pence as his running mate through to the present time he has been an impact player and a major asset," said Faith and Freedom Coalition chairman Ralph Reed, a veteran conservative leader. He called Pence Trump's "emissary to the Right," noting that the vice president has "relationships that go back really decades with some of the major figures in conservative circles."
Pence can also claim to have been in the same position many members of the Freedom Caucus now find themselves in — opposing a Republican president from the right. When the younger President Bush advocated No Child Left Behind and an expensive, deficit-funded Medicare prescription drug benefit, Pence voted no.
"Many arms were twisted and a few femurs broken," Reed said of the Medicare Part D vote, which GOP leaders held open for an unprecedented three hours to just barely drag the bill across the finish line, adding it was an important experience for Pence. "He's been in leadership and he's dissented from leadership."
It is a record that has bought him goodwill from many conservatives. "I'm not going to be worried about any decision Trump, [House Speaker] Paul Ryan and [Senate Majority Leader] Mitch McConnell agree to," Norquist said. "If Pence agrees with them and is taking the lead, I am not only not going to worry about it, I can retire."
In today's difficult political climate, however, even Pence has his conservative critics. They generally don't believe he did enough to fight Medicaid expansion or Common Core while governor of Indiana.
To a few hardcore Trump supporters, Pence is suspect on immigration and a throwback to an older brand of Republicanism that has failed in recent years to win presidential elections. Bauer, a Pence admirer, described Trump as "arguably the only Republican who could have won the White House last year."
"I don't think any of the other Republican candidates could have won regardless of their merits because they couldn't have penetrated the blue wall," he said, referring to Trump carrying Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan.
Pence was at the head of the table when House Republicans restarted Obamacare talks before Capitol Hill went on recess. He was still unable to get conservatives and centrists to agree to a deal everyone agreed would pass.
Still, many conservatives have confidence in Pence. Reed said the vice president "isn't someone who just has street cred on the Right but is someone who's a very savvy and agile policy thinker and legislative strategist."
"Loyalty and discretion are currency in the White House," Reed added. "He is primarily looking out for the interests of the president and not himself. When he is the last guy in the room, he gives his unvarnished opinion. Then he goes out and makes the best case for the president's decision, even if it didn't turn out the way he advocated."
"We like and trust him," said a Republican congressional aide. "But he's going to have his work cut out for him."