For 143 days, it was my job to follow former Vice President Mike Pence on the campaign trail.
That meant I was inside the Las Vegas ballroom on Saturday -- not quite with a front row seat to history, but close -- when he surprised the audience with the announcement that he was suspending his 2024 bid for the White House less than five months after it started.
In the news business, we typically prep background material that can be used for major breaking stories, like a notable death or a candidate dropping out. These prewrites are often darkly referred to as "obits," even when they are about a campaign's end. It was time to dust mine off sooner than I'd expected.
But there had been mounting signs of Pence's imminent exit from the Republican primary.
According to his latest financial disclosures, his campaign had relatively little money and his polling numbers never broke double digits, according to 538.
A politician who had once helped lead his party was now being rejected by many of those same voters. One of their main problems with Pence -- what happened on Jan. 6 -- appeared to be the same thing that divided him from Donald Trump, the former president with whom he used to serve and the current primary front-runner.
Days before his announcement, Pence had reported dire fundraising returns for the third quarter of 2023 -- prompting comparisons to a similar moment during then-Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker's 2016 campaign.
Walker dropped out three weeks later. Pence took less than two.
"We always knew this would be an uphill battle, but I have no regrets," he said Saturday. "The only thing that would have been harder than coming up short would have been if we'd never tried at all."
What it was like in the room
Until he dropped his bombshell, Pence's speech had seemed like any other. In fact, a familiar thought ran through my head as he reached the halfway point in his remarks to the Republican Jewish Coalition: "Another crowd where he's just not hitting ..."
I'd already started drafting a recap note to colleagues, just like dozens of others I've sent after Pence's previous events -- often typing from rental cars between town halls in Iowa and New Hampshire as I documented his every move.
As Pence kept speaking in Las Vegas, I turned in the press pen toward NBC News' Sarah Dean, who like me is a campaign "embed" assigned to cover Pence day in and day out. I wanted to tell her, "We've heard this before."
But we had not.
"The Bible tells us that there's a time for every purpose under heaven," Pence said. "Traveling across the country over the past six months, I came here to say it's become clear to me: This is not my time."
"So, after much prayer and deliberation I have decided to suspend my campaign for president, effective today," he continued.
Audible gasps were heard across the packed ballroom. Some attendees immediately rose to their feet to applaud. Others pulled out their phones to film. Reporters looked at each other and then down at their laptops, feverishly typing to get the breaking news out about what was no longer a typical stump speech.
"We love you!" one woman shouted. "Thank you, Mike!" I heard another man say.
Pence's aides had shared excerpts from his planned remarks in advance, as is standard, but there was no indication he'd be leaving the race. Later on, the event's organizers expressed their surprise to me, too.
My hands shook as I sent out an internal alert to the ABC newsroom: "MIKE PENCE SUSPENDS CAMPAIGN FOR PRESIDENT."
On stage, Pence was still speaking.
"I'm leaving this campaign, but let me promise you, I will never leave the fight for conservative values," he said, "and I will never stop fighting to elect principled Republican leaders to every office in the land. So help me God."
For months, I've seen Pence staffers struggle to fill his town halls in Iowa and New Hampshire, the first two states to vote in the Republican nominating contest. What had started as regular crowds of 70 in the mid-summer, soon after his campaign launch, dwindled down to two dozen by September.
Sometimes, the wait staff at whatever restaurant he was renting out would politely fill the open seats.
When I asked in the summer when we might see Pence host a large-scale rally -- of the kind favored by Trump -- his campaign chair Chip Saltsman, who led Mike Huckabee's campaign to win Iowa in 2008, told me to be patient.
"The key and the strategy is to introduce yourself to voters one at a time, doing these small events, doing town halls, because they're gonna go to work tomorrow and they're gonna go to church on Sunday and talk to their friends about Mike Pence," Saltsman said in July. "We'll kind of work our way to bigger events as it gets closer."
That same night, Pence made a plea to attendees for "just a buck" to help him cross the 40,000-donor threshold to make the first primary debate stage, a humbling request given his high profile. Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who got into the race the same week as Pence, had already qualified for the debate at that point in time.
Rare bipartisan praise but criticism from the base
Pence's campaign was right on this aspect: At his smaller town halls and meet and greets, voters did have ample opportunity to approach him one on one -- and he'd often make it easy for them.
"Call me Mike," he'd say. "I'll be available after this for selfies."
Both Democrats and Republicans regularly thanked him for a decision that seems to have seriously harmed his chances in the GOP primary -- when he resisted Trump's push for him to stop the Electoral College certification of their defeat on Jan. 6, 2021, even as a pro-Trump mob rioted through the building, in some cases calling for Pence to be hanged.
In his 2024 kickoff speech, in June, Pence reflected on that day. He said Trump's push to have him overturn their election loss "endangered my family and everyone at the Capitol."
"President Trump … demanded that I choose between him and the Constitution. Now, voters will be faced with the same choice. I chose the Constitution and I always will," Pence said then.
At the time, those were some of Pence's most candid remarks about how he felt about Trump and Jan. 6, and he repeated those sentiments throughout his campaign.
He likely faced an unreceptive audience: Past ABC News/Ipsos polling has found that a majority of Republicans said they believed Trump's false claims that the 2020 results were fraudulent.
While Pence's stance on Jan. 6 earned backlash from some, including hecklers at multiple events, it also won him bipartisan supporters -- even if they weren't going to vote for him.
Take Nancy Ryan in New Hampshire.
When Pence stopped by Goody Cole's Smokehouse in Brentwood in July, his first lunch stop on his first swing in the state as a candidate, Ryan appeared to be the only voter waiting for the vice president to show up.
"Thank you for what you did on Jan. 6," Ryan, a self-described Democrat, told Pence.
"By God's grace," he replied, shaking her hand.
In September, at Em's Coffee Co. in Independence, Iowa, a woman named Lenore told Pence, "You deserve a medal."
He told her back, "Your words are medal enough," before the woman confessed to ABC News she was a registered Democrat.
And at Pence's last swing through Iowa, in early October, Tom Becker, owner of the Horseshoe Cafe close to where Pence was holding a meet and greet in Sidney, came over to thank him for his actions on Jan. 6.
"I'm truly amazed by that," Becker said. "I just wanted to say hello. Thank you for everything you've done."
But Becker said he hadn't voted for the Trump-Pence ticket and told ABC News he was a registered Democrat who had crossed the aisle to vote for Republicans in the past -- just not at the Iowa caucus.
"He kept the Constitution going and kept our country going, so that's why I'm here today," Becker said.
Those are just three examples: I can't count the times I saw Pence thanked for Jan. 6 -- even as his support in the polls faded.
Leaving on his own terms
People were often polite to the vice president -- aside from the hecklers -- and he was gracious to the reporters covering him, too, recognizing our faces as the campaign wore on. At BBQ events and fairs across the Midwest, he'd often turn and ask: "Did you get something to eat?"
The last time Pence approached the press pen was on Oct. 14 in New Hampshire. The room was filing out as he stood at the back, talking one on one with the few attendees who wanted to hear from him.
He gave our group a thumbs up on the way out but didn't "gaggle" -- journalism slang for taking questions in a more informal way, often in spontaneous groups.
We didn't get a gaggle on Saturday either.
Pence has so far avoided retrospective interviews about his campaign. Instead, he's headed back to Indiana, a place he fondly talked about on the trail.
"[My wife] Karen and I, our lives are pretty full," he said on Oct. 6 in Iowa, in what would be his last swing of the campaign.
Still, the former vice president could soon be drawn back into the headlines. He is a central figure in one of the four indictments against Trump, this one related to the push to overturn the 2020 election. Trump denies all wrongdoing and has pleaded not guilty. Pence could be a witness at his forthcoming trial.
When asked in August if he would testify, Pence said he had "nothing to hide" and didn't close the door on the possibility.
Just as he would months later, when he ended his campaign, he said, "This is not my time."