News From Terre Haute, Indiana

Local & Bistate

January 3, 2011

Gov’s future a hot topic of conversation

INDIANAPOLIS — Over the course of a few short days last week, Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels was described by national political writers as wonkish, boring and short.

He was also called an “economic conservative who can appeal to the middle ground” by the BBC British news service, and rendered as flawed for his obsessive “laser-like focus on fiscal reform” by a conservative columnist for the Washington Post.

Just days after Christmas, an MSNBC political commentator described him as “magical” and likened him to Santa Claus.

The cause for the cacophony of media coverage: Daniels’ announcement months ago that he was open to the possibility of running for president in 2012.

It’s not a topic the Republican governor wants to talk about right now. He’d rather focus, he’s said, on pushing through an ambitious legislative agenda that includes transforming public education, shrinking local government, and changing the way criminals are sentenced in Indiana’s courts.

He’ll have more luck doing that this time around. When the Indiana General Assembly convenes Wednesday to kick off its next legislative session, his fellow Republicans will dominate both the state House and state Senate.

But in an interview last week with the CNHI Statehouse Bureau, Daniels conceded it isn’t easy to ignore the media clamor for more.

“There has now been so much of it, you can’t ignore it,” Daniels said of rampant speculation of his potential candidacy.

He doesn’t personally track the candidacy stories any more, but friends and staff do, he said. What amuses them — and just as often irritates them — is what Daniels describes as the “one-dimensional” nature of how political pundits cast him.

Most often, the Princeton University-educated governor, who earned the nickname “The Blade” when he served as President George W. Bush’s cost-slashing budget director, is called “wonkish.”

Or as Daniels defines it: “cerebral but boring.”

Daniels, a church-going motorcycle rider who campaigned for governor crisscrossing the state in blue jeans and a motor home, would like to think of himself as more than that.

“It’s as if they think you couldn’t be smart and funny at the same time,” said Daniels of political pundits who’ve pigeon-holed him for the convenience of quick copy or short sound bites.

“It’s as if you’re either a person of the people or a wonk,” Daniels said. “They can’t quite cope with the idea that maybe you could be a little bit of both.”

Daniels is quick to dismiss the media members who haven’t spent time in Indiana, seeing what he sees as the big accomplishments of his six years in office: Major cost-cutting of state spending, relatively minor budget woes compared to neighboring states, and much investment in roads and infrastructure — all capped off by a constitutional cap on property taxes.

If not for those things, he said, “no one, I guarantee you, would be paying attention to me.”

What’s he not so quick to dismiss, though, are the concerns of family members who fear what a presidential candidacy could cost them: Their privacy.

 Daniels said his wife, Cheri, and their four daughters — all grown and three married — are wary of the intense media scrutiny that can descend upon a candidate’s family.

“It scares them to death,” Daniels said. “And it should.”

The private family conversations about his potential candidacy are off-limits, he said. But those family conversations matter. “It would be a big deal if they said no.”

And he added: “I could put my country ahead of everything I could think of. Except one.” The “one” being family.

One theme emerging in the media coverage of a Daniels’ candidacy is that he lacks the “star” power of such celebrity politicians as Sarah Palin, who resigned as the governor of Alaska after a failed run for vice president.

He’s not daunted by that. “A lot of these people writing these stories, or the people they’re writing about, for them politics is television and tarmacs. They’re raising money, having little media stunts and they’re closeted away with consultants. We are at the other end of the earth from that.”

The Daniels name likely won’t disappear soon from the pundits list of potential candidates, but as 2010 was ending, Daniels had some other things on his mind, including his health.

He spent the last week of December engaged in an annual routine: A yearly physical along with a trip to the eye doctor. He spent last Wednesday fasting before undergoing what he said were routine diagnostic tests.

The 61-year-old Daniels, a fitness buff, declared himself fit for whatever may come: “I’m as healthy as a horse.” 

Maureen Hayden is statehouse bureau chief for CNHI’s Indiana newspapers. She can be reached at maureen.hayden@indianamediagroup.com.

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