News From Terre Haute, Indiana

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May 15, 2011

State of the Statehouse: Cheri Daniels about to be slimed

INDIANAPOLIS — As the national media ramps up coverage of the presidential aspirations of Indiana’s governor, it’s hard not to get the feeling that Indiana First Lady Cheri Daniels is about to be slimed.

That’s been her husband’s fear for months now. Back in December, in what was supposed to be a routine, end-of-the-year interview where he could brag on his accomplishments, Gov. Mitch Daniels also answered questions about rampant rumors that he might run for president.

He responded with characteristic self-deprecating humor, often evident in the Statehouse, which he employs to both charm the questioner and deflect the question. He joked about his height (and the lack of it) as well as the national media’s characterization of him as wonkish, nerdy, and boring.

But when I asked about how his wife and four grown daughters, who’ve drawn unyielding lines between their private lives and his public one, would feel about the intense media scrutiny that would descend upon them if he did run, he turned serious. “It scares them to death,” he said. “And it should.”

Within hours after that quote was published in the CNHI newspapers in Indiana, those words were bouncing around the political blogosphere, with pundits speculating on what the Daniels women had to hide.

Their reluctance to let go of their privacy is what’s often cited as the reason why the governor has yet to make a decision to toss his figurative hat into the presidential ring.

It’s also what lured a media crowd — including the editor-in-chief of the Des Moines Register in the critical primary state of Iowa — to Indiana this past week to hear the First Lady give the keynote speech at a GOP fundraising dinner. Her appearance — billed by some as her political debut — was seen as a precursor of the blessing she’s about to bestow on her ambitious husband.

Instead of declaring his candidacy, though, she charmed her amenable audience with humorous life-as-the-first-lady anecdotes of cow-milking contests at the Indiana State Fair and the dubious honor of being declared an honorary Hooters girl.

That she could poke fun at herself with such ease shows just how “smart and tough” she is, said state Rep. Eric Turner, a Republican ally of Daniels in the legislature.

Here’s hoping she can tough out whatever comes her way. On the morning of her speech, both The New York Times and The Washington Post published details about the private side of the Daniels’ lives: A 1994 divorce, in which she left him and their four daughters to move to California to marry another man. The Danielses eventually reconciled and remarried, and the governor has declared the story one with a “happy ending.”

But here’s what also appeared in one of those stories: A reporter’s revelation that “in exchange for anonymity,” an official for a potential rival Republican candidate “provided contact information for the ex-wife of the man Cheri Daniels married, in the years between her divorce and remarriage to Daniels.”

It’s hard not to get an awful feeling that Indiana First Lady Cheri Daniels is about to be slimed.

Maureen Hayden is statehouse bureau chief for the Tribune-Star. She can be reached at maureen.hayden@indianamediagroup.com.

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