Hoosiers and presidential campaigns

And there is U.S. Rep. Mike Pence, whose office circulated an ABC News blog story out of Iowa where the Tea Party chairman there hoped he would run.

Both Pence and Daniels made the U.S. News & World Report two-tiered list of potential GOP candidates, with Daniels on the first level along with Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, Sarah Palin, Mitt Romney, Mike Huckabee, Newt Gingrich, Sen. John Thune, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty.

Listed in the “8 Long Shots” are Pence, Rep. Ron Paul, Sen. Jim DeMint, South Carolina gubernatorial nominee Nikki Haley, Jeb Bush, Rick Santorum, John Bolton and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindahl. Pence is described as a “hero to fiscal conservatives.”

While the Politico story is important because it shows the Daniels process is moving into a new stretch, it is the U.S. News story that provides more of a foundation for what is tugging at Daniels and Pence. After reading the book “Game Change” by John Heilemann and Mark Halperin, what really stands out beyond the meltdowns of Palin, John Edwards and Hillary Clinton is how threadbare the GOP shelf was in 2008. John McCain almost wallowed into the nomination. 

The fact is, the GOP field was weak, extraordinarily so. McCain won because opponents Mike Huckabee, Mitt Romney, Fred Thompson and Rudy Giuliani ran lazy-to-ridiculous campaigns. 

Now revisit the emerging 2012 field. Anyone who reads the “Sarahcudda” chapter in “Game Change” cannot seriously believe the former Alaska governor is remotely qualified to be president. Daniels knows this. With the exception of Sen. Thune and Jeb Bush, all of these candidates have serious flaws or a lackluster campaign track record.

Daniels insisted Wednesday that he had scheduled the dinners only to prevent an endless stream of those seeking to lure him into the race. “These are folks who wanted to come by and I didn’t want to see them one by one by one,” Daniels said. But he quickly added, “Most of the conversations have been about the problems facing the country. No one was pitched. No one has asked a thing. No one has donated a dollar.” 

Now, let’s look at the second tier list. Pence is attractive because he’s a great communicator, has a message of fiscal discipline in opposing unfunded programs like No Child Left Behind and the Medicare prescription drug plan. He brings the stature of House leadership. 

The reason there is no obvious heir-apparent at this point is that the Bush organizational money is on the sidelines and is awaiting a wink and a nod from Daniels. Romney is nowhere close to building the aura of inevitability that W had in 1998-99 heading into 2000.

There is speculation that the governor is really awaiting the imprimatur of the First Lady, who wasn’t too keen on him running for governor. Daniels has invoked the “Cheri Daniels” term limits. The First Lady told the Indianapolis Star last summer she gave the odds of her hubby running in 2012 about “20 percent.” The governor’s staff was high-fiving over the 20 percent prospect. Let’s talk when Cheri Daniels crosses the 50/50 threshold. 

Daniels shows the signs of having the same reservations over the quality of the field, telling Washington Post’s Dan Balz last February, “If these people are still around, and still not fully satisfied with the field, and if I don’t see anybody who’s raising what I think of as the survival issues for the country, I guess I’d listen, if it’s not too late.” 

I asked him how he would evaluate the caliber of the emerging Republican field. “We don’t know who the field is so I can’t answer that,” Daniels said, adding, “I’ve tried to recruit four other people to run for president. I’ve tried to be candid when people ask about an opportunity, issues and steps forward that would make a stronger America and a stronger Indiana. I hope to have some constructive suggestions. That’s a whole different thing than being a candidate.”

Pence, who wouldn’t rule anything out and wouldn’t endorse a Daniels’ White House bid, is staring at a scenario that has a little bit of Barack Obama and a little bit of Dennis Kucinich. Normally presidential candidates don’t emerge from the U.S. House. But Pence would have a window between the Iowa caucuses and the Feb. 20 Indiana ballot filing date to mount a presidential campaign, catch fire either in Iowa or New Hampshire, and hope he can audaciously do what Barack Obama did, which is catch lightning in a bottle and make a historic run in a dangerously flawed field.

With Evan Bayh signaling a ’12 gubernatorial run, Pence will certainly look at the White House/U.S. House track. If Mrs. Daniels signs off on her husband’s potential run and he can put together an ambitious national campaign, well, as they say in real estate, it’s a buyer’s market. 

(The columnist publishes at www.howeypoiitics.com)

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