Mike Pence
Indiana Gov. Mike Pence speaks at a rally for Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump at Grand Park in Westfield, Ind., Tuesday, July 12, 2016. Mike Wolanin | The Republic

LAFAYETTE

In all the weirdness packed into a week on the presidential trail, what’s another social media post featuring a piece of fruit autographed by the vice presidential candidate best known these days as Donald Trump’s mop-up man?

Recently, reporters trailing Gov. Mike Pence had a series of photos of an orange, all marked up in Sharpie black. Brian Slodysko, The Associated Press reporter out of Indiana, had this detail on Twitter: “@mike_pence trolling @HillaryClinton, with an orange rolled to press in back of plane that says she ‘loves Nickelback.’”

The other side of the orange, based on social media from reporters on the plane, told the other side of the story. The initial question, written on the orange and rolled to Pence, was: “What is your favorite Sixpence None the Richer song?” Pence’s answer, reaching back to a deep cut from the ’90s-era band: “Christmas for Two.” (And you thought he’d go with the obvious, “Kiss Me.”) Under his song choice, Pence added the hashtag: #HillaryLovesNickelback. (If you don’t get it, ask someone who was awake in the late-2000s.) The signature came in the form of one of Pence’s self-caricatures.

Meanwhile, back here on the ground in Indiana, Hoosiers had to be rubbing their eyes.

Where has this Mike Pence been all this time?

The old roll-the-orange trick was a goofy moment, for sure. But it fits these days, as Pence shows signs of shedding the stifling public skin he carefully cultivated over the past 3½ years as Indiana governor. (Make that four years, if you count the less-than-compelling script on loop that was the 2012 campaign.)

Suddenly, Mike Pence isn’t the guy who could only stammer when George Stephanopoulos chased him around a tree for a yes-or-no — should Hoosiers be allowed to discriminate against gays and lesbians? — on national TV in 2015 after he signed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

Mike Pence isn’t the guy whose reputation for avoiding straight, candid answers to straight, candid questions was so obvious that Rolling Stone devoted 900 words to the Indiana Statehouse press corps’ frustrated attempts to pin him down on just about anything.

Now, Mike Pence is the guy rebranding himself for a national audience, sent out to ostensibly put a kinder, gentler spin on Trump — who the governor told a crowd in Virginia Beach, Virginia., doesn’t have time for “thousands of rules of political correctness,” according to an AP report.

Instead of reluctant and stilted, Pence appears loose. Instead of retreating behind press releases, Pence emerges as the willing participant in projecting a saner, more coherent half of the Republican ticket, calming crowds and nuancing Trump’s hourly hot takes.

Who knew?

When Trump first started floating Pence’s name as a possible running mate ahead of the Fourth of July, here was a theory: a slot at vice president was a nice way out of a re-election bid that was no sure bet. The best scenario: he’d have an office in the White House.

Worst case scenario: he’d have four months of national face time in an audition for an entry back into a prime slot in the broadcasting business (“Rush Limbaugh on decaf” back in the days of “The Mike Pence Show”), followed in 2020 with the run for president he skipped this time around.

Not a bad deal, really, for a guy who’d been driving by “Fire Pence” yard signs on the way to the Statehouse.

In his dust, Democrat John Gregg is left to get his bearings, insisting in vain that he’s running for governor, not running against Pence. Meanwhile, Democrats pound the anti-Pence nails Gregg was setting up over the past year.

When Lt. Gov. Eric Holcomb, the GOP’s replacement on the governor’s ticket, said he was “quite proud” of Pence’s record, Democrats spent the next week asking what the proudest of those Pence moments might be for Holcomb. (The list of talking points was long: Pence passing on $80 million in federal prekindergarten money, the RFRA debacle, Pence’s botched attempt to create a state news service, inadequate road maintenance … The Democrats’ grievance file is thick.)

Pence has escaped that vortex — his own vortex in his own state. He’s free for what amounts to a fresh audition.

George Will, a Washington Post columnist and noted mourner over the Trump nomination and what it could do to the GOP, noted Pence’s role as enabler. (In particular, Will called out Pence’s “well-practiced imitation of a country vicar” when the governor deplored President Barack Obama’s use of the word “demagogue” for Trump, while ignoring the insults Trump hurled daily.)

“Pence is just the most recent example of how the rubble of ruined reputations will become deeper before Nov. 8,” Will wrote this week.

Maybe so.

But in the opening weeks as a full-time vice presidential candidate (and part-time governor), instead of being steamrolled the way critics predicted, Pence has found a buffer — a sort of sweet spot in a different sort of vortex.

For so long, Pence could never hit the right note in Indiana. The mild-mannered reputation that’s winning him fans on the campaign trail — the Wall Street Journal called him “‘Born to be Mild’ Mike Pence” — came off as detached in the state. The General Assembly often worked around him. He handed Democrats that anti-Pence playlist now being sung in Holcomb’s face. And voters were on the verge of making him pay in November.

Now? He’s a wink and a nudge away from the fray — at once in it, talking up Trump as a man who speaks “straight from his heart, straight from his mind”; and at the same time just above it all, publicly making nice with snubbed party members and defending military parents’ right to criticize Trump’s handling of a spat with Gold Star parents who happened to be Muslim. (What a great line Pence used to quiet a Carson City, Nevada, crowd that day: “That’s what freedom looks like.”)

Sure, he’s only a few weeks into this. Four months tied to Trump’s tail could be hazardous to anyone’s health and career.

He probably has better writers and better flaks setting him up these days. (Hopefully, better ones than those who allowed him to brag on social media about hitting up a Chili’s in New York City a day after Trump named him his running mate.) Did he really know a Sixpence None the Richer song beyond “Kiss Me”? For that matter, did he really get the Nickelback reference enough to rattle off that hashtag? Hard to say. He never strayed far enough from the script in Indiana to really know for sure.

From the Indiana State Fair — where Pence did manage to trot out the well-worn nostalgia of his first date with Karen Pence, ice skating at the fairgrounds’ Coliseum — the first lady was asked on the “Today” show about the first bit of advice she gave her husband as he joined the Trump ticket.

“Really, just be himself and have fun with this,” Karen Pence said. “He’s done a great job of staying himself and staying humble.”

So maybe is this the real Mike Pence, rolling oranges to reporters, looking to get a sarcastic link between Hillary Clinton and the dreaded Nickelback to go viral, and, believe it or not, finding some stasis in an Trump campaign veering out of control.

Welcome to the national audition of Mike Pence. Governor, we hardly knew ye.

Dave Bangert is a writer for the (Lafayette) Journal and Courier. Send comments to dreditorial@greenfielddreporter.com.