Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, shown with his wife, Cheri, is expected to announce… (Adriane Jaeckle, Indianapolis…)
Reporting from Pikesville, Md. — As he slouches towards a possible White House run, Mitch Daniels is the GOP's unlikeliest savior. He governs a Midwestern state that few consider cutting-edge. His bland persona can leave audiences cold. Balding and short, he makes a fetish of self-deprecation.
When a stranger approaches after a speech here, eager to "shake the hand of a future president," Daniels gamely obliges.
Then he mutters under his breath: "Not much chance of that."
The Indiana governor is this presidential campaign's Hoosier Hamlet, musing openly about his ambivalence toward becoming a candidate even as the Republican establishment, fearful that the current crop of 2012 candidates hasn't a chance of success, yearns for his entrance into the race.
If he does jump in — a decision is expected soon — history suggests his would be an uphill quest.
No Republican candidate in the modern era has started forming a presidential campaign this late in the game and gone on to win the nomination. It takes time to get organized, collect money, hone a message and build support around the country. Mitt Romney, the front-runner in early polls, has essentially been running since his 2008 campaign faltered.
Daniels, though, sees a path to victory. A surprisingly large number of Republican officials have privately signaled their eagerness to endorse him, he says. (New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a rising GOP star, said recently he'd give "serious consideration" to backing Daniels.) Such support, he insists, could give him the fundraising heft to get through Iowa's make-or-break caucuses in eight months.
In contrast to the rest of the field, Daniels would come to the race as a serious executive with high-level Washington experience — from his turn as a political strategist for President Reagan to a stint as President George W. Bush's budget director.
The Princeton-educated governor has another advantage. Like 2008 nominee John McCain, his work at the national level has given him ease with both political insiders and reporters for decades. He's drawn positive coverage for his non-candidacy from an unusually broad range of outlets, from the Weekly Standard and National Review on the right to NPR, which dubbed him "Woody Allen's Hoosier cousin."
But he still has to decide whether to run. His prolonged internal debate recalls former New York Gov. Mario M. Cuomo, who tortured aides and supporters with his indecision before finally saying "No" in 1991. Daniels says he can't ask the country to make him its next leader unless he can convince his wife and four grown daughters first.
The 62-year-old points out, accurately, that he wouldn't be leaping solo into a national contest.
"I have some women to check with at home first," he told a dinner audience of 75 conservative Republicans in suburban Baltimore last week, after someone asked about his plans.
His wife, Cheri, is said to be uncomfortable with a candidacy. The granddaughter of Chicago Cubs great Billy Herman didn't participate in her husband's 2004 gubernatorial campaign and has kept her public role to a minimum.
Speculation about her resistance to a Daniels run centers on their unusual marital history. In 1993, she filed for divorce after 15 years of marriage, moved to California and wed a doctor, leaving Daniels to care for four daughters ages 8 to 14. Then she divorced again, and she and Daniels remarried in 1997.
"If you like happy endings, you'll love our story," Mitch Daniels told the Indianapolis Star in 2004. "Love and the love of children overcame any problems." But the couple has kept a tight lid on personal details, which would inevitably be pried open in a presidential campaign.
His wife's decision to edge into the spotlight Thursday night, by keynoting a state Republican Party gala, led some to conclude that Daniels would be running. She didn't discuss his presidential ambitions in the speech, and all he told the crowd was, "I'm not saying I won't do it."
Like other governors, Daniels would campaign for president on his record. "Not to impress anybody," he said, sounding apologetic, before rattling off home-state accomplishments for 20 minutes to the Harbour League, a fledgling conservative think tank. Among the applause lines: a constitutional cap on "the lowest property taxes in America"; a permanent ban on collective bargaining by state employees, which led 92% of them to quit paying union dues; a teacher certification overhaul that ended licensing for those with only an education major; and the country's largest state school voucher program.
"We believe in government that is limited, but active," said Daniels.