BAINBRIDGE, Ind. (AP) - Republican Mitch Daniels has repeatedly insisted that his 2008run for a second term as Indiana's governor was his last electionand that he's not interested in the "savagery" of a nationalcampaign.
But like it or not, Daniels' name is being dropped inconservative GOP circles as someone to watch in 2012. Many sayDaniels is just what the battered GOP needs, a blend ofconservative 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 fora national party reeling from Democrats' solid victory last yearand the recent stumbles of former vice presidential nominee SarahPalin 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 anindependent investigator said he found probable cause she hadviolated ethics laws by trading on her position as she sought moneyfor legal fees. Sanford and Ensign admitted extramarital affairs.Another person often mentioned as a contender, Louisiana Gov. BobbyJindal, was widely panned after he delivered the national GOPresponse to Obama's first address to Congress in February.
Given the turmoil, Daniels may not stay on the sidelines, saidJohn Pitney Jr., a professor of politics at Claremont McKennaCollege in California.
"If you look at the list of presidents who said they weren'tgoing to run for president, it's a long list," he said.
The 60-year-old millionaire governor is equally at home inWashington and Indiana after serving as President George W. Bush'sbudget director and an adviser to President Ronald Reagan. Heearned a reputation in Washington as the "blade" for his efforts topromote fiscal responsibility in Congress and carried that toIndiana, where he took over a state with a $800 million deficit andworked with lawmakers to pass a balanced budget in his first year.The state's fiscal year ended June 30 with a $1.3 billionsurplus.
Republican observers believe his track record in Indiana wouldresonate with voters weary of billions in federal bailouts forbanks and the auto industry, and record federal red ink.
"First of all he's a successful governor. Secondly, he is deeplyinformed on the subject about which deep information is nowparticularly needed, and that is budgeting," said conservativecommentator George Will. "Third, he has an all-purpose generalintelligence, and fourth, he is funny. He is a witty man and agraceful writer."
Daniels is popular with voters, winning Indiana easily in a yearin which Barack Obama gave Democrats their first presidentialvictory in the state in 40 years. And he doesn't hesitate to speakhis mind, criticizing his own party for being too placid andputting politics above policy and saying the GOP needs to get intouch with average citizens — something he excels at.
He's even taken jabs at fellow baby boomers, telling a ButlerUniversity commencement crowd, "We were pampered in ways nochildren in human history would recognize" and chastising hisgeneration for fiscal irresponsibility.
The speech prompted conservative columnist Bill Kristol to askwhether the nation is "ready to elect a boomer president whodisdains his own generation, and urges younger Americans to rejectboomer vanities and self-indulgence in the name of freedom andgreatness."
Daniels' businesslike approach to state government —including a highly criticized move to privatize many state welfareeligibility functions and a 75-year lease of the Indiana Toll Roadto a foreign consortium — has caught the eyes of other stateslooking for savings and revenue-generating ideas.
His philosophies and potential appeal to the GOP have been thefocus of articles in National Review magazine, The AtlanticMonthly, The New York Times and The Washington Post. He was anhour-long guest on C-SPAN, and delivered a weekly radio address forthe GOP, criticizing Obama's "cap and trade" energy policy as toocostly.
Daniels says he didn't seek out the attention and attributes thespeculation about a White House run in part to "how slim thepickin's are" among potential GOP contenders. He says he wouldn'tinflict 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 wordthat comes to mind, that has attached itself to national politicsis pretty sobering," Daniels told The Associated Press. "I mean,we've not just seen people's own personal backgrounds but theirspouses and even their children get dragged into this."
If Daniels does change his mind, he'll have an uphillbattle.
Richard Parker, a professor of public policy at the KennedySchool of Government at Harvard University, said he consideredDaniels in the "junior varsity" among potential contenders, behindformer governors Mitt Romney of Massachusetts, Mike Huckabee ofArkansas and Alaska's Palin. He said Daniels' name recognition evenamong registered Republicans is probably 10 percent or less.
Daniels would need to make fundraising appearances around thecountry and meet with the "elite press" in Washington and New YorkCity, Parker said. He also would have to consider some of the stepstaken by Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who was on John McCain's vicepresidential short list in 2008. Pawlenty is headlining GOPfundraisers, has taken an influential job at the RepublicanGovernors Association and is mulling his own political actioncommittee.
Neil Pickett, a former aide to Daniels who also worked with himat the pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly & Co., said he believesDaniels doesn't intend to run for the White House, but cares verymuch about the party.
"If there is some kind of enormous draft movement that he's theright person for the right time, I think he will take that veryseriously," Pickett said.
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