Skillman exit only a mild surprise as Pence rises

These should have been troubling numbers for a sitting, four-year lieutenant governor. They were similar to those of Lt. Gov. Joe Kernan in 2002. Former Democratic State Chair Robin Winston reacted to Kernan’s 40th percentile fame factor and recounted how Lt. Gov. Frank O’Bannon had much higher awareness. The reason is that O’Bannon gave up his 1988 gubernatorial bid to join the ticket with Gov. Evan Bayh, then spent the next seven years positioning himself as heir apparent. If O’Bannon did a jobs announcement in Evansville, he would stop at union halls and party headquarters in Princeton, Vincennes and Terre Haute on the way back to Indy.

O’Bannon had the same type of inevitability that Lt. Gov. Robert Orr had in 1980 after eight years as Gov. Doc Bowen’s No. 2. There was no doubt about Orr and O’Bannon: they were party nominees-in-waiting.

That wasn’t the case with Kernan, who initially rejected the 2004 race when Gov. O’Bannon chose Peter Manous as Democratic state chair in 2002 without his imprimatur. The only reason Kernan was on the ballot in 2004 was the result of O’Bannon’s death the year before.

With Skillman, that type of inevitability was never there. I asked members of Gov. Mitch Daniels’ political team several years ago about a succession to Skillman in 2012 and was astonished when they answered, “It’s never come up.” Then came the Howey-Gauge poll numbers showing 49 percent of Indiana voters didn’t know who she was. Into this relative vacuum came U.S. Rep. Mike Pence, who gradually surpassed Skillman as the nominee in waiting.

So Monday’s announcement that Skillman will not run due to “minor health problems” is only a mild surprise. In a head-to-head with Pence, Skillman would have been a distinct underdog. Daniels was asked how long (before Monday’s announcement) he knew of Skillman’s decision and he simply responded, “Ahead of time.” 

He said, “It was an appealing notion that she might (run). She would have been a great governor. I assumed she would compete.” It was a key and constant question over the past year: would Daniels get behind Skillman? We may never know. Asked if Daniels would endorse Pence, Daniels said, “My practice has been to let the people decide.”

So, is Mike Pence the Republican governor-in-waiting, particularly now that U.S. Sen. Evan Bayh is out of the picture until 2016?

Hold on there, Nellie.

Pence and Daniels are also weighing 2012 presidential bids. Throughout the fall, there was that inevitability buzz about Pence for governor, particularly after he barnstormed the state on a bus emblazoned “Standing Strong for Indiana” – from Paoli to Terre Haute to Muncie and Boonville – stumping for legislative and Congressional candidates.

But both are faced with a 2012 presidential race with no heir apparent like Richard Nixon in 1960, Ronald Reagan in 1980, or the two George Bushes. Pressed by ABC’s Christiane Amanpour on his two-pronged future in November, Pence added that his decision will be made “where we can make the most difference on what matters most to us.” Multiple sources tell me Pence hasn’t made up his mind.

The 2012 race offers Pence perhaps the clearest shot at the White House. He won a Family Research Council straw poll last summer, gave a speech on the presidency at Hillsdale College and addressed the Detroit Economic Club last month. Many Hoosier Republicans expect Pence to come back and run. They also offer the presidential caveat with many saying that Pence is acting like a national candidate, often citing Barack Obama’s long-shot campaign in 2008. There is no Hillary Clinton prohibitive favorite candidate in Pence’s path.

Daniels said he has had no conversations with Pence about either the gubernatorial or presidential races. On that front, Daniels was asked if there were similarities to how his 2004 gubernatorial campaign came together and a prospective presidential run. “It will be similar in that it wasn’t my idea,” he responded. He said it would be different on two counts: involving “leaving the state I love, live in and plan to die in” and that a presidential campaign would require “more sacrifice of my family.”

Daniels insists he will step aside if another contender will address issues like the “iceberg of debt” facing the nation. He told the American Spectator, “Any fair reading of the nation’s balance sheet suggests we’re in a dangerous moment. The responsibility to fix it is poised to fall “on the party whose uniform I wear.”

If Pence aims for the White House, who would pick up the gubernatorial mantle? There’s state Treasurer Richard Mourdock, Supt. Tony Bennett who has presided over an Indiana graduation rate that has reached 84 percent, Murray Clark who just stepped down as state chair, and House Speaker Brian Bosma, who has raised millions of dollars for Statehouse Republicans and will shepherd through Daniels’ education and government reforms this winter.

(The columnist publishes at www.howeypolitics.com)

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