Pence argues against socialism in Ripon, Wisconsin, which was central to the founding of the Republican Party

Vice President Mike Pence waves after arriving on Friday, July 17, 2020, at Wittman Regional Airport in Oshkosh

RIPON – In a visit Friday to a city central to the founding of the Republican Party, Vice President Mike Pence argued Democrats were turning the country toward socialism, touted a border wall and praised police officers.

“Joe Biden would weaken the thin blue line that separates order from chaos,” Pence said of the Democratic candidate for president during a 30-minute speech at Ripon College.

“Under President Donald Trump, we will stand with those who stand on the thin blue line and we will never defund the police. We will defend the police every day. This president and this administration will back the blue.”

He called for backing law enforcement amid an eruption of protests over the treatment of Black people. He scoffed at the idea that police officers have an implicit bias against minorities.

“We know that it’s a false choice to think that we have to choose between supporting law enforcement and supporting our African-American neighbors and friends,” Pence told the almost entirely white crowd.

“Under President Donald Trump, we will support law enforcement, improve public safety and stand with African-American families and all our minorities to improve quality of life.”

Attendance at Pence’s speech was limited to 50 people because of the coronavirus pandemic. Attendees had their temperatures checked as they entered the event, wore face masks and sat in chairs that were 6 feet apart from one another. 

The setup contrasted with the one at the party’s state convention, where few wore masks and many spent time close together.

Pence’s visit came just after the United States reported a record 75,600 coronavirus cases Thursday. Nine hundred of them were in Wisconsin.

Pence touched briefly on the pandemic, contending Trump had dealt with the illness aggressively and was committed to reopening the country.

“We are meeting this moment with American compassion and American resolve,” he said.

Biden communications director Kate Bedingfield called Pence’s stop an act of “damage control” in a battleground state.

“As VP Pence attempts to gloss over the Trump administration’s bungled response to the pandemic, the choice for Wisconsin voters could not be more clear,” Bedingfield said in a statement. “Instead of propping up the wealthy and powerful, Joe Biden will ensure we reopen safely, get relief to those in need, and help us Build Back Better by creating millions of good-paying jobs and supporting working families across the Badger State.”

Pence’s stop is a reminder Wisconsin remains a top target in the presidential race. Trump narrowly won the state in 2016, becoming the first Republican presidential candidate to claim it since Ronald Reagan won reelection in 1984. 

Trump has struggled in recent polls. Biden led Trump 49% to 41% of registered Wisconsin voters in a June survey by Marquette University Law School. 

Pence made his case that Republicans are the party of freedom in a city that played a crucial role in forming the Republican Party to fight slavery. In 1854, Whigs, Free Soilers and disaffected Democrats met at a Ripon schoolhouse to discuss the formation of a new abolitionist party.  

Pence said Democrats are offering a very different agenda.

“Their road leads to socialism and decline,” he said.

He stressed that Biden had been working closely with U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, the self-described democratic socialist who lost the Democratic presidential nomination. 

“I thought Joe Biden won the Democratic primaries,” Pence said. “But looking at their unity agenda, it looks to me like Bernie won. When you look at their agenda, the only thing they ended up unifying was Joe Biden to the radical left.”

The race, Pence said, is “not so much whether America will be more conservative or more liberal, more Republican or Democrat, more red or blue. It’s whether America remains America.”

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From Ripon, Pence headed to a dairy farm in Onalaska, where he talked up the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement. He called the deal, which replaced the North American Free Trade Agreement, a “great win for American agriculture.”

He also said farmers would be included in another round of pandemic relief that Congress will soon debate — even though Democrats and Republicans remain far apart on legislation and made no promises about reaching a compromise. 

Pence has been a frequent visitor to Wisconsin, with his last trip here less than a month ago.

During his June trip, he made two stops in Waukesha County to talk about school choice, security and religious freedom. The same week Trump toured Fincantieri Marinette Marine in northern Wisconsin.

RELATED:Trump and Biden are running thousands of TV ads in Wisconsin — showing it’s one of a handful of states they think will decide the election

Biden, who will be formally named the Democratic nominee at the national convention in Milwaukee next month, has not yet visited the state as part of the 2020 campaign. He has been conducting most of his campaigning virtually because of the pandemic. 

Contact Patrick Marley at patrick.marley@jrn.com. Follow him on Twitter at @patrickdmarley.