Mitch Daniels’s wife, Cheri, is in the spotlight


First lady Cheri Daniels walks to the podium after being greeted by Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels before she speaks at the state Republican Party fundraiser in Indianapolis, Thursday, May 12, 2011. (Darron Cummings/AP)

If the members of the Indiana Republican Party had their way, Mitch Daniels would have announced his presidential bid Thursday night. When the state’s governor got on stage, most of the audience stood up and waved signs that said “Run Mitch Run.”

He spoke of the 2012 speculation, but only to tamp it down — and string it along at the same time. “No great announcements or pronouncements, though some insisted on expecting some,” Daniels said. “I’m not saying I won’t do it,” he added before saying, as he has before, that he really wanted to retire from the public eye.

But Daniels wasn’t the one being analyzed for presidential hints. Instead it was his wife, keynote speaker Cheri Daniels, who is under national scrutiny as a potential obstacle to her husband’s bid.

The couple have a somewhat unusual marital history. In 1993, they divorced, and Cheri moved to California. Her husband stayed in Indiana with their four young daughters. A year later, they reconciled.

Some attendees at the state party dinner said that it was not Daniels’s wife but his daughters, now adults, who were most wary of the campaign glare on that period in their life.

But Indiana’s first lady is in the spotlight for now. “There’s a lot of pressure on her,” said Ted Ogle, the party’s 6th District chairman, before the speech. “Her speaking last night is a major deal. What it means we might not know for some time.”

Party members had nothing but good things to say about Cheri Daniels, but they agreed that she had no love for politics.

“I always say that she’s the most elegant, graceful watermelon-spitter I’ve ever met,” said Eric Holcomb, the state party chairman. “She’s a multi-talented first lady. She’s not shy, but she’s not a political animal.”

Neither Daniels nor his wife seemed particularly reticent. “In 1975, I met a small-town girl, and it was one of those first sight things. I couldn’t take my eyes off her legs. She couldn’t take her eyes off the Steak and Shake burger I was eating. Whatever works.”

He explained how he convinced her that he should run for governor in 2003. “It does not overstate the case to say that this was not her first choice,” Daniels said. “There is no rule book for this, as far as I’m concerned. I would never want you to be any different than you are. I’ll never ask you to go anywhere you don’t want to go.”

Cheri Daniels’s speech was short on national politics and long on the Indiana state fair. And yet, while there was no sign of her feelings about 2012, her speech did give some hint of the kind of campaigner she would be. While she mostly stood on the sidelines in her husband’s gubernatorial bids, her down-home sensibility helps humanize a potential candidate that has been typecast as bookish and intellectual.

Lt. Gov. Becky Skillman (R) said that even those closest to Daniels don’t know if he’ll run. But she knew one thing: “Don’t expect Cheri Daniels to change. She will be herself regardless of what comes in the future.”

Rachel Weiner covers local politics for The Washington Post.
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