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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.
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And I'm Michele Norris.
What puts someone on the path to the presidency? Is it a moment, a mentor, a transformative experience? What was the spark? This month, NPR is delving into the early political fires of potential presidential hopefuls.
And today, NPR's national political correspondent Mara Liasson reports on Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels.
MARA LIASSON: Mitch Daniels had to stop and think when I asked him how he got started in politics.
Governor MITCH DANIELS (Republican, Indiana): Hard to tell. And I did not come from a political family. I mean, I did go to Boys State. I went to Boys Nation, so maybe that was one of the starting points.
LIASSON: So the spark for Daniels was Boys State, that mock political convention for high school student leaders. As his sister Deborah Daniels recalls, in the summer of 1966, instead of running for Indiana Boys State governor himself, Mitch chose the role of teenage political consultant.
Ms. DEBORAH DANIELS: There's a fellow playing the piano one evening, and his name was Terry Lester. Mitch looked across the room and said, that guy looks like a governor. Let's pick him as our candidate. So they talked him into running, and Mitch developed the strategy. They, you know, they had a convention and everything and how they were going to get the delegates to come to their side. And Terry won.
LIASSON: Terry Lester went on to become an actor on soap operas. He died in 2003. Mitch Daniels stayed in politics, and he stayed behind the scenes. He ran Richard Lugar's Senate office and all his campaigns. He worked in the Reagan and George W. Bush White Houses, and he ran the Hudson Institute, a conservative think tank in Indiana.
Daniels was drawn to public service but not elected office.
Gov. DANIELS: This was something I was interested in. It wasn't an obsession with me. And I was never at all obsessed with holding public office myself.
LIASSON: Presenting yourself as a reluctant candidate might be good politics. But in his case, says Daniels' former colleagues, it has the added benefit of being true.
Republican strategist Ed Rollins says Daniels is a guy with a big brain, not a big ego.
Mr. ED ROLLINS (Republican Strategist): I don't think he's a guy who's looked in a mirror every day for the last 10 years or 20 years and said, there's the next president of the United States.
LIASSON: Rollins hired Daniels to work as the political director in the Reagan White House.
Mr. ROLLINS: And I'll tell you a story about Mitch that tells you a lot about him. When Quayle was named vice president in '88, Mitch was offered the vacant Senate seat. And I said, Mitch, this was every guy's dream. You get to be a U.S. Senator. You don't have to run for it. He said, Ed, you know I've got a big family. I got to go make some money.
LIASSON: And he did, making millions as an executive at Eli Lilly. In 2001, Daniels came back to Washington as George W. Bush's budget director. Then in 2004, he made the leap and became a candidate himself.
His sister Deborah says he ran a 21st century-style retail campaign.
Ms. DANIELS: He went to all these little towns, met with very small groups of people, but they recorded it and they created kind of a reality TV show, they called "Mitch TV." And then they showed these segments, which were (inaudible).
LIASSON: On "Mitch TV," Daniels comes off as charming but a little awkward. He looks like Woody Allen's Hoosier cousin. He's short, 5'7", and balding with a comb-over. He doesn't have the kind of personality that fills a room or, for that matter, a campaign bus, which is where a lot of "Mitch TV" is filmed.
(Soundbite of "Mitch TV")
Gov. DANIELS: First thing you need to know about this is it wasn't my idea, only in the most indirect sense. I am the one who said that if I was going to become a candidate for public office, I wanted to do things very differently, spend all my time on the road with the people of Indiana. And...
LIASSON: Mostly, he met people who had no idea who he was.
Ms. JANICE SWEDICK(ph): Are you Mitch Daniels?
Gov. DANIELS: I am.
Ms. SWEDICK: Nice to meet you. I'm Janice Swedick.
Gov. DANIELS: Hey, Janice. How you doing?
Ms. SWEDICK: I'm fine.
Gov. DANIELS: So you actually know who we are, huh?
Ms. SWEDICK: No, I don't.
Unidentified Woman: What's your last name?
Gov. DANIELS: Daniels.
Unidentified Woman: Daniels.
Gov. DANIELS: Yeah.
Unidentified Woman: Okay.
LIASSON: If he runs for president, Daniels will run on his record in Indiana, which has hit most of the sweet spots for Republican primary voters. He put an end to collective bargaining for public sector workers, expanded school vouchers and, after suggesting conservatives call a truce on social issues, he signed a bill that defunded Planned Parenthood. Most importantly, he turned a budget deficit into a surplus.
Fiscal responsibility fits right in to Daniels' reputation as a proud skinflint. As a Capitol Hill staffer, he once fished quarters out of the toilet of a local bar just to prove how cheap he could be. And then, says Deborah Daniels, there's the golf story.
Ms. DANIELS: He didn't take up golf until maybe he was 45 or 50 years old, you know. And finally, his friends convinced him that he ought to try to play golf and see if he liked it. So he showed up, and he had clubs that he had probably borrowed. And he didn't want to pay $5 for a golf glove, so he brought a gardening glove. And he said, well, I don't know if I'm going to like it, so why should I spend the money for the glove?
LIASSON: More than any other potential Republican candidate, Daniels has focused on the debt and the deficit. He calls it the new Red Menace, a tidal wave of red ink. But he's also challenged Republican orthodoxy by saying Republicans have to be ready to compromise, and that everything should be on the table, including taxes.
Gov. DANIELS: If you believe, as I do, that this is a republic-threatening issue that we cannot remain either prosperous or influential in the world if we go broke and that the arithmetic - forget philosophy for a minute - just the arithmetic says that's where we're headed, then I think that leads any patriotic citizen to the conclusion that you will do what it takes.
LIASSON: Now, Daniels has to decide if he's willing to do what it takes to run for president. This morning, he said he'd talked to former President George W. Bush about it. But he also said no sane person would like to run. And he's promised that although he's been reluctant to run, he would not be a reluctant candidate if he gets in.
Mara Liasson NPR News, Washington.