- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 1, 2009

BAINBRIDGE, Ind. | Republican Mitch Daniels has insisted repeatedly 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, Mr. Daniels is being mentioned in conservative Republican circles as someone to watch in 2012. Many say the governor is just what the battered party 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 Mr. Daniels is as good a bet as any for a national party reeling from the Democrats’ solid victory last year, the recent stumbles of former vice-presidential nominee Sarah Palin and the implosion of two other rising Republican Party stars — South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford and Nevada Sen. John Ensign.

Another person often mentioned as a contender, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, was widely panned after he delivered the national Republican Party response to President Obama’s first address to Congress in February.

Given the turmoil and the missteps of the front-runners, Mr. 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 as an adviser to President Reagan. He earned a reputation in Washington as the “blade” for his efforts to promote fiscal responsibility in Congress, and he carried that to Indiana, where he took over a state with an $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 say his track record in Indiana would attract voters weary of billions in federal taxpayer bailouts for banks and the auto industry and of 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.”

Mr. Daniels is popular with voters, having won Indiana easily in a year in which Mr. Obama gave Democrats their first presidential victory in the state in 40 years. He doesn’t hesitate to speak his mind, criticizing his own party for being too placid and putting politics above policy and saying the Republican Party needs to get in touch with average citizens — something at which he excels.

He even has 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.”

Mr. 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 been watched carefully by other states looking for savings and revenue-generating ideas.

Although the subject of largely positive profiles in the national media, Mr. Daniels said 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 Republican Party contenders. He says he wouldn’t inflict the intensity of a national campaign on his wife, Cheri, and the couple’s 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,” Mr. Daniels said. “I mean, we’ve not just seen people’s own personal backgrounds but their spouses and even their children get dragged into this.”

If Mr. 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 Mr. Daniels in the “junior varsity” among potential contenders, behind former Govs. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts, Mike Huckabee of Arkansas and Mrs. Palin of Alaska. He said Mr. Daniels’ name recognition even among registered Republicans is probably 10 percent or less.

Mr. Daniels would need to make fundraising appearances across the country and meet with the “elite press” in Washington and New York, Mr. Parker said. He also would have to consider some of the steps taken by Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who was on Sen. John McCain’s vice-presidential shortlist in 2008. Mr. Pawlenty is headlining Republican Party 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 Mr. Daniels who also worked with him at the pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly & Co., said he believes Mr. Daniels does not 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,” Mr. Pickett said.

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