BAINBRIDGE, Ind. — 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.
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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.”