How Mitch Daniels is winning by waiting

at 01:10 PM ET, 05/17/2011


Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels speaks at the state Republican Party fundraiser in Indianapolis, Thursday, May 12, 2011. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings)
At first glance, Mitch Daniels is not someone who engenders political swooning. Shortish, balding and a self-described policy wonk, the Indiana governor is not who you would picture if asked to describe a presidential candidate from central casting.

And yet, Daniels has become the hottest thing in Republican political circles of late by doing one simple thing: waiting.

Daniels has, for months now, been publicly mulling a presidential candidacy. And, as he has remained on the fence, almost everyone else in the race has jumped off of it — leaving a field that many GOP voters and strategists believe is wanting.

That sentiment has turned Daniels into the man of the moment as, in recent weeks, he has been publicly praised far and wide by prominent Republicans.

During an appearance on the “Today” show last week, House Speaker John Boehner (Ohio) offered some unprompted praise of Daniels — calling him a “person with a track record of reform in his state, the kind of reforms we need in Washington, D.C.”

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie echoed that sentiment in a recent radio interview saying of Daniels that “he’s certainly somebody who I have enormous respect for and would give real consideration to supporting.”

(Reports that Christie — and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker — had offered their support if Daniels runs are untrue, according to informed sources in both camps.)

And, on Monday, Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, who looked at running himself in 2012, said that Daniels would be “an extremely good candidate”. (On Tuesday, Henry Barbour, the governor’s nephew, tweeted: “No idea if Mitch Daniels is running, but this wide open field needs another truth teller with a record like his.”

Daniels is being courted behind the scenes as well. Last week, a number of major GOP donors came to a Republican Governors Association policy conference at the Indiana governor’s mansion with many of the attendees urging Daniels to make the race.

“I think it is smart,” said GOP strategist Mike Murphy of Daniels’ waiting game strategy. “Why have the burn rate with no voter attention?”

Under Murphy’s logic, Daniels’ hard-to-get approach to the race not only turns him into a hot commodity for those looking for a fresh face to get behind but also saves him from raising and spending money on a bid before anyone even in early voting states is paying much attention.

While the Daniels’ buzz continues to grow — witness the “Run Mitch Run” signs being waved at last week’s Indiana Republican fundraising dinner — recent electoral history suggests that simply being the last major candidate to enter the race is no guarantee of success in the nomination fight.

Both retired Gen. Wesley Clark (D) and former Tennessee senator Fred Thompson were late entrants into the 2004 and 2008 nomination fights respectively.

But, in both cases, their best day as a candidate was their first one; neither man proved to be a particularly compelling and their campaigns wound up fizzling out.

And, now that the race has begun in earnest it becomes more difficult for Daniels to remain on the sidelines for much longer. The clearest evidence of why waiting might not work much longer? Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney’s monster $10 million one-day haul, a sum that some of his rivals could struggle to equal in the entire three-month quarter.

Daniels’ wait and see strategy has served him well to this point. But the day is rapidly approaching when he needs to make up his mind or run the risk of jumping the political shark.

 
Read what others are saying