WASHINGTON — After weeks of defending Donald Trump on the campaign trail, his running mate had had enough Saturday.
GOP vice presidential candidate Mike Pence withdrew from a campaign appearance in Wisconsin, preferring to let Trump answer for himself during Sunday’s presidential debate about his sexually aggressive comments about women.
“I do not condone his remarks and cannot defend them,” Pence said in a statement Saturday. “We pray for his family and look forward to the opportunity he has to show what is in his heart when he goes before the nation tomorrow night.”
He released the statement before leaving Indianapolis for a closed-door fundraiser in Rhode Island.
The Indiana governor was to replace Trump after House Speaker Paul Ryan called off Trump’s appearance following the publication Friday of a 2005 recording of Trump obtained by NBC News and the Washington Post.
“I'm automatically attracted to beautiful women — I just start kissing them, it's like a magnet. Just kiss. I don't even wait. And when you're a star, they let you do it. You can do anything," Trump said into a hot mic. "Grab 'em by the p----."
Days after Pence repeatedly deflected questions during Tuesday's vice presidential debate about Trump’s controversial comments about women and others, Pence said Saturday that “as a husband and father,” he was offended by the words and actions described by Trump in the video.
But he was in the odd position of having some Republicans calling on him to step down from the ticket, while others suggested he replace Trump.
New Hampshire Sen. Kelly Ayotte, who is in a tough re-election battle, said she will be writing in Pence’s name on the ballot.
Carly Fiorina, the former chief executive of Hewlett-Packard who is one of the many Republicans Trump defeated for the GOP nomination, called on Trump to step aside to be replaced with Pence.
Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, who only endorsed Trump last week, told The Salt Lake Tribune “the time has come for Governor Pence to lead the ticket.”
"Trump should step down immediately tonight, yielding to Governor Pence as the GOP Nominee," Rob Engstrom, national political director for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, likewise said on Twitter on Friday night.
But the Democratic super PAC American Bridge 21st Century said it’s laughable for Pence to now claim to be scandalized about Trump’s behavior after defending him for so long. The group put out a video interspersing snippets of Trump’s remarks with clips of Pence on the campaign trail saying Trump “tells it like it is” and is “just kind of fun to watch.”
Erick Erickson, an influential conservative blogger who opposes Trump, said Pence should quit the ticket.
“Makes him redeemable for 2020,” Erickson tweeted. “Is the morally right thing to do anyway.”
John Weaver, a campaign strategist for Ohio Gov. John Kasich who has kept his distance from Trump, said Pence “already owns much of what has happened.”
“Surely he doesn’t want to own this,” Weaver said on Twitter.
But while some people would praise Pence for dropping out, he would look like a quitter, as well as naive, said independent analyst Stuart Rothenberg.
“A lot of people would say, `You didn’t see this side of Donald Trump?’ ” Rothenberg said. “I don’t think he has a lot of good options.”
Pence, in fact, has spent a lot of time trying to reassure Republicans that the Trump he has gotten to know is different in private — and has even asked him to pray together.
Indiana Republicans, however, say Pence can navigate the latest political storm while keeping his integrity — and future political options — intact.
“Mike Pence has shown himself to be a devoted husband and father, one of the classiest guys you’ll ever meet in person, even if you disagree with his positions on issues,” said Mike Murphy, an Indianapolis-based GOP public relations executive. “He is not Donald Trump and nobody would expect him to be responsible for Donald Trump.”
Pence’s addition to the GOP ticket was in part a move to reassure conservative voters, both because of Pence’s long advocacy on issues like defunding Planned Parenthood and because of the contrast between Pence’s personal life and that of the thrice-married Trump.
During his 12 years in Congress, Pence had rules to avoid any infidelity temptations, or even rumors of impropriety. Those included requiring that any aide who had to work late to assist him be male, never dining alone with a woman other than his wife, and not attending an event where alcohol is served unless Karen was there.
In a 2002 interview with The Hill, Pence called it, “building a zone around your marriage.”
"If there's alcohol being served and people are being loose, I want to have the best-looking brunette in the room standing next to me," Pence said.
Steve Deace, an influential Iowa-based radio talk-show host active in evangelical conservative politics who does not back Trump, lamented Saturday the Republicans who do.
“If you really want to know how much our Trump hypocrisy has hurt the church, go ask your millennial children, friends etc,” he tweeted.
But Jim Bopp, a prominent conservative lawyer from Terre Haute, said Christians can still support Trump.
“Christians understand that every human being is flawed, and this is in the nature of man. People say things they shouldn’t say,” Bopp said. “What’s more important is not that they said something. But how do they deal with it. And Trump has apologized.”
“I’ve never said I’m a perfect person, nor pretended to be someone I’m not,” Trump said in a video statement. “I’ve said and done things I regret, and the words released (Friday) on this more than a decade-old video are one of them.”
Several Indiana GOP elected officials and candidates have criticized Trump’s comments, although none announced they wouldn't vote for him.
Eric Holcomb, Pence’s lieutenant governor and the GOP candidate to succeed him, said he hasn’t made up his mind.
"The actions and comments made by Donald Trump in the video released yesterday are offensive and unacceptable,” Holcomb said in a statement. “While I have not made a final decision, my vote and support of any candidate should never be taken for granted."
Likewise, GOP Rep. Todd Young, who is in a tight Senate race against former Sen. Evan Bayh, told WRTV-6 on Saturday that he’s giving “very serious consideration” to whether to continue to support Trump after his "beyond offensive" remarks.
“Now is the time for leadership, not equivocation,” Bayh said in response. “Hoosiers should be asking themselves, `What type of "serious consideration" does Congressman Young need after Donald Trump bragged about committing sexual assault?' ”
Sen. Dan Coats, R-Ind., said Trump’s “vulgar comments are totally inappropriate and disgusting, and these words have no place in our society.”
Rep. Susan Brooks, R-Carmel, said she is “personally disgusted” by Trump’s behavior.
Trey Hollingsworth, the GOP businessman running against Democrat Shelli Yoder for Young's south-central Indiana seat, said "it is never acceptable to speak about or treat women in that manner."
Albert Samuels, interim dean of the Nelson Mandela College of Government and Social Sciences at Southern University in Louisiana, said the GOP is worried about the impact Trump will have on other GOP candidates on the ballot, particularly those running for the Senate and the House.
Republicans are just hoping they can contain the damage in terms,’’ said Samuels. “They’re afraid it will have a demobilizing effect — that you see people who just can’t bring themselves to vote for this guy. Republicans are going to have to convince those people to come out’’ and vote for other Republican candidates.
Indiana’s members of the Republican National Committee — state GOP chairman Jeff Cardwell, Marsha Coats and John Hammond — did not respond to requests for comment.
Bopp, a former RNC member, said the party can replace Trump only if he resigns.
“I don’t see any prospect of Trump stepping down and there’s no authority to remove him,” Bopp said. “It would be political suicide for the party to do that anyway.”
Indiana’s deadline for removing a candidate from the ballot was in July.
Not only have ballots been printed, but voting has already begun in some states.
Derek Muller, an election law expert at Pepperdine University School of Law, said it’s possible for the RNC to agree on a replacement if Trump withdrew. Then, if the campaign got more electoral college votes than Clinton’s campaign, the electors in each state could cast their votes not for Trump, but for the chosen replacement.
Some states require the electors to vote for the person on the ballot who won the most votes. But Muller said there are few enforcement mechanisms and it’s unlikely secretaries of state would force electors to be bound by a candidate who has dropped out.
“The biggest barrier is getting Trump to drop out,” he said.
If Trump would withdraw, Pence is not necessarily the likely replacement, Rothenberg said.
“One of his problems is he’s been supporting Donald Trump for the last 2½ months in any way and every way possible,” Rothenberg said. “And his social views are quite conservative. He’s got his own baggage.”
Two prominent #NeverTrumpers — conservative journalist Bill Kristol and GOP consultant Mike Murphy who ran Jeb Bush’s 2016 super PAC — both see 2012 nominee Mitt Romney as the obvious replacement.
“If Trump steps down, there's one appropriate substitute presidential candidate: The previous nominee, uncontaminated by Trump: Mitt Romney,” Kristol tweeted.
In fact, Pence’s alliance with Trump could taint him for years to come, said Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics.
"You live by the sword, and you die by the sword — and Donald Trump is a heck of a sword,” Sabato said. “Pence thought he was well-positioned for 2020. Look, he certainly will be in the mix, but obviously there will be anti-Trump candidates, probably plural, who will relive Pence’s pro-Trump fall. They are bound to.”
Contributed: Deborah Barfield Berry and David Jackson, USA TODAY.