- Associated Press - Monday, December 8, 2014

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) - Indiana Gov. Mike Pence could be looking to get back in the good graces of tea partyers who’ve been wondering what happened to the conservative firebrand they knew in Congress ahead of a potential White House run in 2016.

Pence’s 2015 legislative agenda relies heavily on school choice, an education issue dear to conservatives’ hearts. He wants lawmakers to lift the cap on the dollar amount for vouchers, which allow qualifying students to attend private schools on taxpayers’ dimes. He also wants more funding for charter schools.

The proposals have angered supporters of traditional schools, who say the voucher program, the nation’s broadest, is siphoning students away from public schools. But they could help smooth over some hard feelings between Pence and the tea party movement, a key constituency in Republican nominating contests.

As a hard-charging conservative congressman, Pence was an early member of the House Tea Party Caucus. Since becoming governor, he has softened his approach to the point where many who urged him to run for president in 2012 are wondering what happened.

His efforts to pull Indiana from national Common Core education standards resulted in a new set of standards that one critic dubbed Common Core “warmed over.” His decision to seek an alternative expansion of the state’s Medicaid program led many tea partyers to accuse him of abandoning them on one of their core issues. And the former congressman who once threatened to shut down the federal government over Planned Parenthood funding has moderated his comments on hot-button social issues, rarely speaking about a proposed gay marriage ban that dominated the last legislative session.

But there are signs that Pence is trying to win back his base.

He has joined a 20-state coalition suing the federal government over President Barack Obama’s executive order on immigration, and showed his states’-rights flag when he announced Indiana wouldn’t apply for a federal preschool grant that could have yielded $80 million in funding.

The moves, especially his education agenda, are sounding the right note for those who backed him for a 2012 White House run.

“His plan is bold,” Monica Boyer, an Indiana Tea Party leader, told The Indianapolis Star (https://indy.st/1vEVWWU ) in an email. “It has ‘kick’ and direction. It reminds me of the Mike I met when he was in Congress. I feel it’s a plan full of substance and solutions, and not just political rhetoric.”

Pence has said he won’t announce whether he’ll seek the Republican nomination in 2016 until after the legislative session ends in April. For now, he says he’s focused on his goals of improving education for Indiana students.

Analysts say Pence’s more tamped-down approach in his first two years as governor may have helped him with moderate Republicans.

But refocusing on his conservative roots “will appeal to the base,” said Andy Downs, director of the Mike Downs Center for Indiana Politics at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne.

“Whether it’s enough to make up for any moderation ascribed to him in the past two years, I don’t know,” Downs said. “But it will certainly help.”

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Information from: The Indianapolis Star, https://www.indystar.com

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