Updated: Sunday, 30 Aug 2009, 5:29 PM EDT
Published : Sunday, 30 Aug 2009, 5:29 PM EDT
BAINBRIDGE, Ind. (AP) - Republican Mitch Daniels has repeatedly insisted that his 2008 run for a second term as Indiana's governor was his last election and that he's not interested in the "savagery" of a national campaign.
But like it or not, Daniels' name is being dropped in conservative GOP circles as someone to watch in 2012. Many say Daniels is just what the battered GOP needs, a blend of conservative values, cool demeanor and fiscal discipline.
"Mitch has been steady to the cause, he's stayed principled," said Michael Steele, chairman of the Republican National Committee. "The nation is going to recognize him."
Some political observers say Daniels is as good a bet as any for a national party reeling from Democrats' solid victory last year and the recent stumbles of former vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin and two other rising GOP stars — South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford and Nevada Sen. John Ensign.
Palin resigned as Alaska's governor abruptly in July, and an independent investigator said he found probable cause she had violated ethics laws by trading on her position as she sought money for legal fees. Sanford and Ensign admitted extramarital affairs. Another person often mentioned as a contender, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, was widely panned after he delivered the national GOP response to Obama's first address to Congress in February.
Given the turmoil, Daniels may not stay on the sidelines, said John Pitney Jr., a professor of politics at Claremont McKenna College in California.
"If you look at the list of presidents who said they weren't going to run for president, it's a long list," he said.
The 60-year-old millionaire governor is equally at home in Washington and Indiana after serving as President George W. Bush's budget director and an adviser to President Ronald Reagan. He earned a reputation in Washington as the "blade" for his efforts to promote fiscal responsibility in Congress and carried that to Indiana, where he took over a state with a $800 million deficit and worked with lawmakers to pass a balanced budget in his first year. The state's fiscal year ended June 30 with a $1.3 billion surplus.
Republican observers believe his track record in Indiana would resonate with voters weary of billions in federal bailouts for banks and the auto industry, and record federal red ink.
"First of all he's a successful governor. Secondly, he is deeply informed on the subject about which deep information is now particularly needed, and that is budgeting," said conservative commentator George Will. "Third, he has an all-purpose general intelligence, and fourth, he is funny. He is a witty man and a graceful writer."
Daniels is popular with voters, winning Indiana easily in a year in which Barack Obama gave Democrats their first presidential victory in the state in 40 years. And he doesn't hesitate to speak his mind, criticizing his own party for being too placid and putting politics above policy and saying the GOP needs to get in touch with average citizens — something he excels at.
He's even taken jabs at fellow baby boomers, telling a Butler University commencement crowd, "We were pampered in ways no children in human history would recognize" and chastising his generation for fiscal irresponsibility.
The speech prompted conservative columnist Bill Kristol to ask whether the nation is "ready to elect a boomer president who disdains his own generation, and urges younger Americans to reject boomer vanities and self-indulgence in the name of freedom and greatness."
Daniels' businesslike approach to state government — including a highly criticized move to privatize many state welfare eligibility functions and a 75-year lease of the Indiana Toll Road to a foreign consortium — has caught the eyes of other states looking for savings and revenue-generating ideas.
His philosophies and potential appeal to the GOP have been the focus of articles in National Review magazine, The Atlantic Monthly, The New York Times and The Washington Post. He was an hour-long guest on C-SPAN, and delivered a weekly radio address for the GOP, criticizing Obama's "cap and trade" energy policy as too costly.
Daniels says he didn't seek out the attention and attributes the speculation about a White House run in part to "how slim the pickin's are" among potential GOP contenders. He says he wouldn't inflict the intensity of a national campaign on his wife, Cheri, and four grown daughters.
"To me the level of not just scrutiny, but savagery is the word that comes to mind, that has attached itself to national politics is pretty sobering," Daniels told The Associated Press. "I mean, we've not just seen people's own personal backgrounds but their spouses and even their children get dragged into this."
If Daniels does change his mind, he'll have an uphill battle.
Richard Parker, a professor of public policy at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, said he considered Daniels in the "junior varsity" among potential contenders, behind former governors Mitt Romney of Massachusetts, Mike Huckabee of Arkansas and Alaska's Palin. He said Daniels' name recognition even among registered Republicans is probably 10 percent or less.
Daniels would need to make fundraising appearances around the country and meet with the "elite press" in Washington and New York City, Parker said. He also would have to consider some of the steps taken by Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who was on John McCain's vice presidential short list in 2008. Pawlenty is headlining GOP fundraisers, has taken an influential job at the Republican Governors Association and is mulling his own political action committee.
Neil Pickett, a former aide to Daniels who also worked with him at the pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly & Co., said he believes Daniels doesn't intend to run for the White House, but cares very much about the party.
"If there is some kind of enormous draft movement that he's the right person for the right time, I think he will take that very seriously," Pickett said.