Jose Luis Magana/AP
Indiana Gov Mitch Daniels speaks last month at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington. The speech has been called the most intellectually compelling conservative call to arms in years.
Indiana Gov Mitch Daniels speaks last month at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington. The speech has been called the most intellectually compelling conservative call to arms in years. Jose Luis Magana/AP
More than a dozen Republicans are testing the waters for a potential presidential run, giving high-profile speeches and trying to figure out whether 2012 is the right year for them.
Among them, one GOP hopeful is attracting the support of a slice of the Republican Party. Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels already has won what's called the "pundit primary." No other potential presidential candidate has had as many glowing op-ed pieces written about him.
Conservative commentators in the mainstream media have called Daniels thoughtful, serious, principled and honest — and some of them have literally begged him to run.
"It's pretty weird, to tell you the truth," Daniels tells NPR. He's treating all this attention from the conservative intelligentsia like the kiss of death it may turn out to be.
"I've been telling friends, I only ever went to one bullfight in my life, but there's somebody whose job it is to lure the bull out in the arena so everybody else can stick him with their swords," he says. "And maybe that's what's happening here."
A Conservative Call To Arms
Daniels has thrilled conservative elites because of his record in Indiana, where he walked the walk on fiscal responsibility, streamlining state government and turning a deficit into a surplus. And six years before Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker attempted it, Daniels ended collective bargaining for public sector workers in his state.
But more than anything else, Daniels' current cachet comes from a single speech — his address to the Conservative Political Action Conference, or CPAC, last month. The speech has been called the most intellectually compelling conservative call to arms in years. His No. 1 topic: the deficit.
"It is the new Red Menace, this time consisting of ink," he said. "We can debate its origins endlessly and search for villains on ideological grounds, but the reality is pure arithmetic. No enterprise, small or large, public or private, can remain self-governing, let alone successful, so deeply in hock to others as we are about to be."
A lot of Republican presidential hopefuls talk about the debt these days, but Daniels gets specific — and he doesn't touch the third rail of American politics as much as lie down on it.
Daniels says that Social Security should be means-tested, and that younger workers should be given Medicare vouchers.
Born: April 7, 1949
Family: Married to Cheri Herman; four daughters: Meagan, Melissa, Meredith and Maggie
Education: B.A. from the Princeton University, 1971; Georgetown University Law Center, 1979
Career: CEO of the Hudson Institute, a think tank; president of Eli Lilly's North American pharmaceutical operations; chief of staff to Sen. Richard Lugar, senior political adviser to President Ronald Reagan; director of the Office of Management and Budget under President George W. Bush
Elected Office: Elected as Indiana's governor in 2004. Currently serving his second term.
Source: Indiana governor's office
He also challenges GOP orthodoxy, saying everything, including defense spending and tax loopholes, should be on the table. And at CPAC, he said something else that was unusual for a Republican.
"We must display a heart for every American, and a special passion for those still on the first rung of life's ladder," he said. "Upward mobility from the bottom is the crux of the American promise, and the stagnation of the middle class is in fact becoming a problem, on any fair reading of the facts."
Reaching Beyond The Base
Rich Lowry, editor of The National Review, says he was impressed by Daniels' speech. "It wasn't pandering to its audience at all, which is very unusual, perhaps unheard of," Lowry says.
"I think he understands the political challenge to conservatism now," he adds, "which is to reach beyond the conservative base, not just talk to ourselves, and really engage with the working-class and middle-class voters where they live."
Daniels has also used his CPAC speech — given to an audience of hard-core conservative activists — to ask the Republican Party to build a governing majority by reaching out to make the biggest possible tent.
"We must be the vanguard of recovery, but we cannot do it alone. We have learned in Indiana, big change requires big majorities. We will need people who never tune in to Rush or Glenn or Laura or Sean," he said, referring to conservative media pundits Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, Laura Ingraham and Sean Hannity.
That line not surprisingly caused an angry reaction from conservative talk radio. And his earlier call for a truce on social issues didn't make him many friends among evangelicals. In an interview with NPR, Daniels stood by an assertion he made recently in a speech where he said Republicans would be better off if people "liked us just a bit."
He told NPR, "Yes, tone does have something to do with it. I think if we're going to solve the problems that are ahead of us, we're going to need a very broad coalition of Americans, and that'll inevitably include people who may have other disagreements."
But Will He Run?
Of course, there are a million reasons why Daniels wouldn't win the Republican nomination. He's short and balding, and not very charismatic. He's viewed with suspicion by both social conservatives and anti-tax activists. And historically, tough-love candidates like him don't get very far in partisan primaries — even though they're in vogue right now — as the public clamors for a solution to the deficit. That's why a lot of Daniels fans think he won't run after all.
But GOP strategist Mike Murphy says whether he runs or not, Daniels has already made a contribution to the Republican debate.
"I think what Daniels has done is put a spotlight on what I call the 'grown-up' brand of fiscal conservative politics, a brand of conservatism that tells the truth about big problems without pandering to the simple answers or the knee-jerk," Murphy says.
"It tells the truth about how to win a general election, which is not just about purity, and talks to all voters about the fact that we have to face this out-of-control spending we have," Murphy adds. "And facing it needs some sacrifice that people will have to make as part of being citizens."
Daniels says he'll make a decision about a presidential bid in the next few weeks.