Will Mitch Daniels lead the GOP in 2012?

Gov Mitch Daniels, R-Ind. speaks during the Ronald Reagan Banquet at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington on Friday, Feb. 11, 2011. AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana

Is Mitch Daniels running for president?

Right now, if Indiana Republicans had to gamble, they would say yes -- but they wouldn't put all their chips on the table. Daniels has long said that he will announce his decision after Indiana's legislative session ends, and he is nearing the crucial moment. The session is slated to end this Friday, and if Daniels is serious about running, he needs to begin soon assembling a campaign staff, attracting donors, and visiting early primary states. Furthermore, the news that Mississippi governor Haley Barbour won't run spares Daniels from having to factor into his decision the question whether he wants to run against a good friend.

"If I had to bet, I'd say I think he will run," says Chris Chocola, president of Club for Growth and a former Indiana congressman. "I think he is running in a sense -- he's doing things he probably wouldn't do if he weren't strongly considering it."

One such thing is Daniels’s decision to give a major address on education reform at the American Enterprise Institute in early May, signaling a desire to maintain a national presence. “Daniels is making the right moves to position himself for a presidential campaign — delivering high-profile Washington speeches, appearing on the Sunday-morning programs, contributing op-ed columns with regularity,” comments Robert Schmuhl, a professor of American studies at Notre Dame. “He’s even got a book coming out in the fall.”

“I think he wants to run,” says one GOP source close to Daniels. “The question is: Will his family support that decision?” Daniels and his wife, Cheri, have four adult daughters.

The Washington Post reported this week that Daniels “got quiet” when asked about his family’s willingness. He said that it was “a very important factor.” But there are hopeful indicators for those cheering on a Daniels run: Cheri Daniels threw out the ceremonial first pitch for the Triple-A Indianapolis Indians on opening day earlier this month, and she will be the keynote speaker at a GOP fundraising dinner May 12.

“She has not been an extremely visible first lady in our state,” says Curt Smith, president of the Indiana Family Institute. “Recently, these two things she’s done make me think she’s at least checking out what a more public life might mean.”

“She has been reluctant for him to be a candidate for president,” Smith adds. “Campaigning is a thankless kind of thing.” He notes that the Danielses had a “rocky time in their marriage.” Rocky indeed: In 1993, after 15 years of marriage, Cheri divorced Mitch and married another man. Four years later she returned to (and remarried) Mitch. The only public comment Daniels has ever made on the topic is telling the Indianapolis Star, “If you like happy endings, you’ll love our story.” Still, it’s understandable that the couple might dread media (and possibly opponents’) focus on that period.

James Bopp, an RNC committee member, agrees that familial considerations will ultimately determine Daniels’s decision. “I think he’s more likely to run than not,” Bopp says. He cites Daniels’s impressive gubernatorial record before acknowledging the personal factors that will play a role in his decision. “Campaigning does put a lot of demands not only on the candidate — and that affects his family life — but also on the family directly. For someone to run, the family has to be on board with it. So I assume he will only run if they are.”

Cheri Daniels’s chief of staff, Julie Aud, has tried to quash speculation that Mrs. Daniels’s keynote speech is any kind of test for a 2012 run. Aud told the Associated Press that Mrs. Daniels had told her that she had decided to give the speech in order to showcase her work in Indiana during her husband’s two terms and that it “didn’t really have anything to do” with a possible presidential run.

On the other side of the ledger is the continued interest in Governor Daniels expressed by Republicans far and wide. “There may have been a time when he or others thought interest in him would fade over time,” says one GOP official close to Daniels, “but just the opposite has occurred. His approach to governing and what’s he getting done here are noticed around the country, far outside Indiana’s borders, and so he’s serious when he says he’s considering it.”

The reason for that continued interest may be that, as crowded as the field of possible GOP contenders is, there’s no Daniels duplicate in the mix. With voters likely to remain focused on the national budget and debt as 2012 rolls around, Daniels’s budget-wonk reputation and his past as an OMB director (under George W. Bush) give him credibility. He can also point to an enthusiastic recommendation from House Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan, who told The Weekly Standard last year that Daniels “would be a great president,” and that Daniels understood the principles behind Ryan’s famed Roadmap and the necessity of implementing it.

“He’s the thinking man’s candidate,” says Chocola. “I think he will be viewed as kind of the moderate in the race. That will be where the media and maybe even his own campaign would try to position him, but his service has been relatively conservative.”

A number of grassroots groups have emerged urging Daniels to run. Those groups include Switch2Mitch, Americans for Mitch, and Students for Daniels, a band of young adults who have even run a few commercials in support of a Daniels candidacy. There is also the overall discontent with the existing crop of GOP candidates: Only 43 percent of Republicans are satisfied with the current field, according to a recent Washington Post/ABC News poll, making it clear that there’s ample room for newcomers.

Of course, Daniels would still face plenty of obstacles. In national polls of Republican voters, he currently wins about 3 percent of the vote. His call for a truce on social issues has made social conservatives uneasy. And while voters in 2012 may not place as high a premium on charm and celebrity as voters did during the last presidential election, some observers wonder if any year can generate sufficient voter enthusiasm for a plain-looking, short man whose overall vibe is more accountant than hotshot CEO.

“I guess it’s, Stay tuned,” says Mike O’Brien, a former legislative director for Daniels. “All indications are to just stay tuned until after the legislative session. From a political standpoint, it makes all the sense in the world for him to wait until after the session, when he has education reform, another balanced budget, and the other issues he’s pushing under his belt.”

Bio: Katrina Trinko is an NRO staff reporter. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

Comments

Watch CBSN Live

Watch CBS News anytime, anywhere with the new 24/7 digital news network. Stream CBSN live or on demand for FREE on your TV, computer, tablet, or smartphone.