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The news out of Wisconsin will likely figure into the 2012 presidential race, but who the key Republicans will be in that race is far from clear. Hardly any GOP candidates have formally announced for president. More than a dozen are giving high-profile speeches and trying to figure out if 2012 is the year for them.

NPR's Mara Liasson reports now on one possible contender whose unorthodox approach has captured the imaginations of some powerful Republicans.

MARA LIASSON: Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels has already won what's called the pundit primary. No other possible presidential candidate has had as many glowing op-ed pieces written about him as Daniels.

Conservative commentators in the mainstream media have called Daniels thoughtful, serious, principled and honest - and some of them have literally begged him to run.

Governor MITCH DANIELS (Republican, Indiana): Pretty weird, to tell you the truth.

LIASSON: Daniels talked to me yesterday, and it's clear he's treating all this attention from the conservative intelligentsia like the kiss of death it may turn out to be.

Gov. DANIELS: I've been telling friends, I ever only went to one bullfight in my life, that there's somebody whose job it is to lure the bull out in the arena so everybody else can stick him with their swords, and maybe that's what's happening here.

LIASSON: Daniels has thrilled conservative elites because of his record in Indiana, where he's walked the walk on fiscal responsibility, streamlining state government and turning a deficit into a surplus. And six years before Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, Daniels ended collective bargaining for public sector workers in Indiana.

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. Daniels' number one issue was the deficit.

Governor MITCH DANIELS (Republican, Indiana): It is the new red menace, this time consisting of ink. 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.

LIASSON: Lots of presidential hopefuls talk about the debt, but Daniels gets specific, and he doesn't just touch the third rail of American politics as much as lie down on it. Daniels says Social Security should be means tested. Medicare should be voucherized for younger workers.

He also challenges GOP orthodoxy by 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.

Gov. DANIELS: 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.

Mr. RICH LOWRY (Editor, National Review): I thought it was a fantastic speech. It wasn't pandering to its audience at all.

LIASSON: That's Rich Lowry, the editor of The National Review.

Mr. LOWRY: I think he understands the political challenge to conservatism now, 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.

LIASSON: Daniels also used his CPAC speech, in front of an audience of hardcore conservative activists, to ask the Republican Party to build a governing majority by reaching out to make the biggest possible tent.

Gov. DANIELS: 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.

LIASSON: 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.

But yesterday, Daniels stuck to his assertion that Republicans would be better off if people, quote, "liked us just a bit."

Gov. DANIELS: 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.

LIASSON: Of course, there are a million reasons why Daniels might not win the nomination: he's short and bald and not very charismatic. He's viewed with suspicion by both social conservatives and anti-tax activists.

Historically, tough-love candidates 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.

Mr. MIKE MURPHY (Political Strategist): What Daniels has done is put a spotlight on what I call the grown-up brand of fiscal conservative politics that tells the truth about big problems without pandering to the simple answers or the kneejerk. 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, and facing it means some sacrifice that people will have to make as part of being citizens.

LIASSON: Daniels says he'll make a decision about a presidential bid in the next few weeks.

Mara Liasson, NPR News, the White House.

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