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Is Mitch Daniels another Benjamin Harrison?

Politics

Benjamin Harrison could be the president with the most "only" titles.

The only one from Indiana.

The only one whose grandfather (William Henry Harrison) also was president.

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The only one elected between a president who served before and after him-Democrat Grover Cleveland.

The only one whose great-grandfather signed the Declaration of Independence.

His home in Indianapolis is one of the state's top historic sites and, perhaps in keeping with Harrison's fiscal prudence, is "privatized." It's not a federal government project and has a local board of citizens. Stimulus grants don't go there.

Harrison bears some intriguing similarities to a current potential White House candidate from Indiana-Gov. Mitch Daniels.

Both come across as reluctant candidates. Harrison was so reluctant that he ran his campaign from his front porch in Indianapolis.

Both have reputations for competence more than charisma-of Theodore Roosevelt in Harrison's day, Ronald Reagan's in our time. A Harrison contemporary, Sen. John J. Ingalls of Kansas, summed him up this way: "Harrison was the only man who had ever been president who was capable of discharging with signal ability the duty of every one of his Cabinet ministers; that he was the best equipped man that had ever been in public life."

Like Daniels, Harrison was short-supposedly a strike against Daniels as a candidate. The handicappers say he would look puny next to Barack Obama.

Harrison and Daniels are Presbyterians and serious about it. Daniels has been a longtime member of Tabernacle Presbyterian Church with its historic ministry in a challenging urban setting.

Harrrison was an elder at First Presbyterian Church when it moved into a new building in his neighborhood. Now used by Redeemer Presbyterian Church (Presbyterian Church in America), the building includes a church as well as the (Benjamin) Harrison Art Gallery.

One difference: Daniels is the better campaigner. Harrison ran for governor and lost in 1876 to James "Blue Jeans" Williams. Harrison was chosen by the General Assembly for the U.S. Senate in 1880, prior to the popular election of senators. In 1888, before extensive primaries tested candidate popularity, he was nominated by the Republicans on the eighth convention ballot, after delegates divided over other candidates.

Harrison made his case to the country more with the printed word, with detailed position papers. A Harrison campaign claim: "He does not mingle with the good fellows of the town and slap people on the back."

Daniels, in contrast, mingles with everyone. He took an RV all over the state for his first race in 2004, staying in people's homes. He likes to ride his motorcycle around the state, sometimes introducing rough-hewn fellow bikers to his well-heeled, coat-and-tie Republican friends.

So Daniels seems to have it all, or most of it-competence and campaigning ability. Maybe the time is coming, as it did for Benjamin Harrison, when the voters are weary of charm and eloquence.

Russ Pulliam
Russ Pulliam

Russ is a columnist for The Indianapolis Star, the director of the Pulliam Fellowship, and a member of God's World Publications' board of directors.

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