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Pence social conservatism appears mid-term, still not as strident as Washington years

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INDIANAPOLIS — Gov. Mike Pence's social conservatism has begun showing up midway through his first term following efforts to downplay his positions during his 2012 run for office.

Pence opened the past week by calling his decision to drop a food-stamp waiver "ennobling" for the state's poor and capped it with a call for legal action to block President Barack Obama from implementing sweeping immigration changes. His decision to let the federal waiver lapse effectively mandates that poor residents without children work or attend job-training for at least 20 hours a week in order to receive food stamps.

"I'm someone that believes there's nothing more ennobling to a person than a job," Pence told Fox News last week. "And to make sure that able-bodied adults without dependents at home know that here in the state of Indiana, we want to partner with them in their own success."

Even though the stance is hardly new for Pence — he has often made similar statements in supporting job-training and economic-development programs — or unique among conservatives, it still sparked a firestorm in the liberal blogosphere not seen since he was in Congress.

He also announced, at the Republican Governors Association conference in Florida last week, that he was considering joining other conservative governors (and possible White House contenders) looking at suing to block Obama's immigration changes announced last week.

What changed is that Pence has garnered more attention as a possible White House contender with the end of the 2014 elections and as his supporters in Washington have continued pitching him to the national media.

Through most of his 2012 run for governor and his first two years in office, Pence avoided hot buttons on which he built his name in Congress. The congressman who once sought a ban on funding for Planned Parenthood, even if it resulted in a government shutdown, has largely avoided talk of abortion since then.

His two legislative agendas — loosely defined by his administration — have focused on broader conservative priorities like tax cuts and expansions of sweeping education changes. They also have included some measures with bipartisan support, like the establishment of job-training councils around the state and creation of a pre-kindergarten pilot program.

Two of his top policies — the removal of the state from Common Core educational standards and the request to expand Medicaid using a state-run alternative — sparked the ire of tea partyers and social conservatives who have longed supported him running for the White House.

He has occasionally reached back to his social and religious conservative roots during his time back in Indiana but has not been strident about it. The governor gave big play to his support for a constitutional ban on gay marriage in his State of the State address earlier this year, but he dropped the issue after that, even as it foundered in the state Legislature, saying he preferred to let lawmakers make their own decisions.

As the focus among political insiders turns to whether he will run for president in 2016, the items he pushes in 2015 will carry much more importance and give a better idea of what a White House-candidate-Pence would sound more like Governor Pence or Congressman Pence.

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