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Enter Mike Pence, Trump’s halfway pick

Mike Pence Most Important Speech of His Political Life

Mike Pence is about to give the most important speech of his political life. And it should go just fine, if Donald Trump doesn’t materialize from the mist again, like a character from “This Is Spinal Tap,” so he can muscle in on the microphone and cut Pence off at every third word.

(And just by the way, regarding that accompaniment he got from Queen, whose remaining members immediately protested, could Republicans have found a band more out of sync with their party? Maybe tonight they’ll go for a little Cat Stevens, aka Yusuf Islam.)

Anyway, I say this because I watched the ticket’s dual interview with Leslie Stahl last Sunday, which was remarkable for many reasons, not least because everyone was sitting in these rounded gold-leaf chairs that made it look like the king of France might storm in at any moment and demand his living-room set back.

Trump and Pence sounded like a newly married couple trying to persuade immigration agents that they really had fallen madly in love, despite the fact that they met the week before and one of them needed a green card.

Pence kept referring to Trump as “this man” and “this good man,” as if he wasn’t quite sure whether the two of them had yet reached a first-name basis and it was safer just to be oblique. A sour-faced Trump interrupted Pence constantly and actually granted him permission to speak for himself — out loud, more than once.

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Trump ticked off Pence’s accomplishments in Indiana as if he had just hired a city manager, while Pence smiled tightly. Governors don’t find themselves patronized very often.

It’s not hard to see why Trump seems unenthusiastic about his choice, and why he apparently dithered over it even after offering the job. The legend of Trump is that he never does anything halfway.

“No room for small thinking” is how Melania’s speechwriter put it in the part of her convention speech that wasn’t sampled. “No room for small results.”

But Pence is a classic halfway pick. And Trump seems bent on making him look plenty small.

In theory, Trump faced a choice when it came to picking a veep. On one hand, there was a lot of pressure to choose a running mate who would reassure the party’s governing establishment and broaden the ticket’s demographic appeal.

Trump would have benefited mightily, on this score, from choosing a qualified woman. But he had already insulted by name the two woman governors best suited for the role — South Carolina’s Nikki Haley and New Mexico’s Susana Martinez. And Joni Ernst, the Iowa senator famous for slaughtering hogs without a moment’s hesitation, apparently found the idea of running with Trump too hard to stomach.

(For this, she was given the very last speaking slot on the first night, when most of the delegates still on the floor at Quicken Loans Arena were old guys who had fallen asleep, possibly during the NBA Finals a few weeks before.)

By all accounts, Trump had his own sentimental picks — guys a little more like himself, whose judgment he actually respected. At the top of that list was Chris Christie, who at least had the candor to dispense with all the exhausting coyness and say flat out he wanted the job.

You could make a pretty strong case, in fact, that Christie was owed it. It was Christie, after all, who took down Marco Rubio at exactly the moment Trump needed him to.

And as a recent chairman of the Republican governors and a favorite of the conservative think-tank set, Christie was the first serious party figure to swing his support to Trump at a critical moment in the primaries — for which he absorbed no end of scorn and mockery.

And Christie had the national standing to fill the job. Could you imagine him pussyfooting around with “this good man” in a national TV interview, letting Trump tell him when it was OK to speak his mind?

Trump wouldn’t have dared, and if he had, those two guys would have ended up rolling around on the expensive carpet, biting each other’s ears off.

But Christie wasn’t a reassuring pick, and he wasn’t likely to broaden support. There aren’t a dozen New Jerseyans who would vote for him again at this point, and party leaders were disgusted by his slavish embrace of Trump’s candidacy while they were still trying desperately to stop it.

Nor was the party brass going to feel especially soothed by Newt Gingrich, another strong personality who appealed more to Trump than to social conservatives, or Michael Flynn, a former general and political newcomer, who uttered my favorite line of this convention so far: “War isn’t about bathrooms! War is about winning!”

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At least I’m pretty sure that’s what he said. I have no idea why.

And so it was that Trump, the blustery reality-TV boss who goes all in for whatever he wants and bends all others to his will, found out, in this first big decision, that presidential politics has a way of bending you.

Somehow he was persuaded to split the difference. In doing so, he got pretty much nothing beyond a running mate who causes him no harm, and I’m willing to bet he’s still second-guessing himself.

Pence has a calming effect on Republican leaders and religious conservatives, who consistently describe him as “solid.” But he does nothing more to reach women or skeptical independents than Christie or Gingrich would have done.

And while Trump seems to like Pence enough, he doesn’t evidence a ton of real respect or personal comfort with his No. 2. If the CBS interview is any indication, rather than “doubling down” on the brashness that people seem to like about him, Trump chose a subordinate who makes him seem more imperious and more insecure.

For Pence, who was in for a tough reelection fight in Indiana, the calculation here is simple. Either he wins the nation’s second highest office or he establishes himself as a formidable national figure. Either way, he’s set up to pursue the presidency on his own, in four years or in eight.

Except for the not insignificant risk, I suppose, that the rest of the campaign looks like that first public interview, and that somehow Pence ends up a diminished version of the national candidate he could have been, having introduced himself to the public as a guy who lets himself be told when to speak and what to say.

Pence has a big moment tonight, the long-awaited opportunity to make his first impression on a national audience. Maybe for his soundtrack they should turn to Bob Dylan: “Gotta Serve Somebody.”