Former Vice President Mike Pence’s surprise visit to Ukraine on Thursday highlighted a deep division within the GOP over US involvement in defending the country against Russia.
And it created a stark contrast between Pence and his former boss, former President Donald Trump, who steered their party in a more isolationist direction.
Pence, the first candidate in the crowded 2024 Republican presidential field to travel to Ukraine, directly countered the rising “America First” wing of modern conservatism and sought to position himself as the party’s main champion of hawkish foreign policy. who defined the party for decades.
“I truly believe that now, more than ever, we need leaders in our country who will express the importance of American leadership in the world,” Pence told NBC News in Kyiv. “Since the days of Ronald Reagan, the American people have always supported those who fought back in defense of their own freedom.”
The visit came as many conservatives called for cutting ties with Ukraine, which has received hundreds of billions of dollars from the Biden administration in aid and weapons. They argue that the money would be better spent in the United States, that the real fight for freedom is against progressivism at home, and that the fight with Russia is a distraction from the more important one with China.
Trump, whom Pence remained loyal to until their falling out in the Jan. 6 uprising, praised Russian President Vladimir Putin, said he would end the war in Ukraine as quickly as possible – which would almost certainly force Ukraine to make major concessions – and refused to say whether he wanted Ukraine or Russia to win, even when he repeatedly pressed the issue during a town hall on CNN last month.
“Shockingly, nearly the entire GOP field supports Biden’s blind support strategy for Ukraine,” said Vivek Ramaswamy, the tech entrepreneur who became a surprisingly strong presidential candidate, in A memo posted on Twitter this month: “I disagree and predict this will become *the* key distinguishing issue in our primary.”
But Pence said his visit to Ukraine and his meeting with President Volodymyr Zelenskyy only “strengthened my resolve” and “further equipped me to be able to return home as I speak to the American people about the importance vital U.S. support to repel Russian aggression.”
The former vice president has put Ukraine under more strain than any other Republican candidate and plans to tie Ukraine’s current struggle against Russia to the American Revolutionary War when he celebrates July 4 in the Iowa next week, according to his campaign.
“There can be no room in the leadership of the Republican Party for Putin apologists,” Pence said in a speech marking the anniversary of the Russian invasion in February.
Liberal critics say Pence helped Trump put his stamp on the GOP, so his attempt to undo him now is too little too late.
But Peter Feaver, a former top National Security Council official in George W. Bush’s White House and a prominent conservative foreign policy expert, said the visit of a major presidential candidate to a war zone is a ” galvanizing event” that could help Pence “jump”. out of the pack, at least on Ukraine,” for party members like him who want the GOP to retain its traditional foreign policy values.
But he acknowledged that “the liveliest part of the grassroots” seems to be with Trump.
A majority of Republican primary voters – 52% – said they would be less likely to support a candidate who supports sending more funds and weapons to Ukraine, according to the latest NBC News poll, while 28% said they would be more likely to support this. candidate.
At first, support for Ukraine enjoyed broad bipartisan support in the United States. But a year and a half into the war, Republicans are 30 percentage points more likely than Democrats to say Washington is giving Kiev too much support, according to Pew Research.
While Pence’s visit drew positive reviews from mainstream conservative outlets like the National Review, others criticized him for making the trip, calling it “fraud” and one RINO — “Republican in name only” — and mocked Pence to be in kyiv at the same time as climate activist Greta Thunberg, a favorite right-wing villain.
But for the most part, the conservative media ignored the visit, reflecting Pence’s weak standing in the polls and highlighting how difficult it will be for him to return the party to its foreign policy roots.
“I didn’t know there were voters in the Republican primary in Kyiv,” conservative commentator and former judge Andrew Napolitano said on the Real America’s Voice streaming show. “He should be spending his time in New Hampshire, where Donald Trump beats him 51% to 5%.
Still, Feaver, now a Duke University professor, said Pence’s focus on Ukraine could force other candidates to address an issue they would otherwise prefer to avoid because it divides their base.
“It will not change Trump. Trump is unwavering on this. But it puts a lot of pressure on DeSantis to better define himself,” Feaver said. “DeSantis launched into Ukraine with this response to Tucker Carlson that was really badly framed, then fired it and sent mixed messages ever since.”
DeSantis came under fire in March when he told the former Fox News host that the “territorial dispute between Ukraine and Russia” was not a key American interest. He quickly backtracked, calling Putin a “war criminal” and saying Ukraine has a right to Russian-occupied territory.
Meanwhile, the rest of the field of candidates — including former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley, South Carolina senator Tim Scott and former New Jersey governor Chris Christie — say they support the lawsuit. aid to Ukraine, although none have pushed the issue as hard as Pence.
Foreign policy is rarely a central issue in presidential elections, let alone partisan primaries, but depending on which faction prevails and goes to the White House, it will set the tone for the Republican Party and potentially American politics.
“I don’t think it’s decisive in the primary. But I think it’s decisive in governance,” Feaver said. Whoever is the president, he will be struggling with the baggage he accumulates in the primary.
This article originally appeared on NBCNews.com