INDIANAPOLIS-Indiana's Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels doesn't really want to run for president. He just wants to help select the GOP candidate for 2012. So he's opened his back door a crack to boost his leverage in the selection process.
At the National Governors Association he suggested he'd consider a run only if no one else emerges as a strong candidate. But he has no plans to go to places like New Hampshire and Iowa or mount the normal campaign for the office. He doesn't appear to have the necessary fire in his belly.
Instead, he'll be trying to get Republicans elected to his state's House of Representatives this year so he can have a GOP majority for his last two years in office.
What makes him an attractive candidate for president is his fiscal management of Indiana. He inherited a deficit in state spending when he was elected in 2004 and built up a surplus (see "Riding a surplus," Aug. 15, 2009). That surplus helped him get reelected and has kept the state out of the more dire financial messes of surrounding states like Michigan and Ohio. He also leased the state's toll road, raising $2 billion for highway construction and softening the impact of the national recession.
Yet he does not have what a presidential run usually requires. He's not a nice guy. He's short, intense, and extremely intelligent. Sometimes he makes less intelligent people feel stupid.
Most of his life he's been a manager, in the Reagan White House or running the Office of Management and Budget for President George W. Bush.
Then he decided to run for governor of Indiana.
Close associates wondered if he could do it. He had done so well as a behind-the-scenes political advisor that they wondered whether he could come forth as an attractive candidate himself.
With incredible self-discipline and skill, he drove all around Indiana in an RV, staying in voters' homes, writing blogs about the state's wonders and people. He's wound up with as great an impact on the state as any governor since World War II.
What works in Indiana, though, does not necessarily work across the rest of the country. The state's Republican senator, Richard Lugar, found that out in 1996 when he tried a presidential run. So did Indiana's Democratic senator, Evan Bayh, when he tried to run for the 2008 nomination. Competence in Indiana does not equal charisma in New Hampshire.
Daniels has helped enough other presidential candidates to know that voters want a governor with a track record, along with the kind of warm fuzzies that characterized Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan and the personality of George W. Bush in contests against the likes of either Al Gore or John Kerry.
In one scenario, however, the Republicans might come crying to Daniels to run.
With its massive debt, the federal government may have trouble borrowing money next year. It's already happened to Greece. It's less likely to happen to the United States if the economy recovers. Yet never say never.
The threat of a federal credit crisis might make Mitch Daniels a very attractive presidential candidate.