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A tentative step toward the Oval Office by a GOP policy guru

By David S. Broder
Sunday, October 17, 2010; A21

While much of Washington was preoccupied Thursday evening by the contrast between the unacceptable and the profoundly uncomfortable -- the first televised debate between Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and the challenger for his Nevada seat, Sharron Angle -- a different scene was unfolding in a hotel ballroom here.

The Hudson Institute gave a dinner honoring its former president, Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, with the award named for its founding intellect, Herman Kahn. Several hundred conservative men and women, many of them fellow intellectuals, listened as a parade of thinkers praised Daniels, a Republican who used the evening as an informal launch of what may be his presidential candidacy in 2012.

It was in every respect the opposite of the spectacle that came out of Nevada. There, Democrats and Republicans alike cringed as they watched their supposed champions mangle policy questions and personal exchanges in a fashion that would have been embarrassing for high school debaters. How did Nevada end up with two such inept candidates?

Back in Washington, the luxury of having a thoughtful presidential contender was striking for everyone hearing Daniels. The onetime Reagan White House political director and Bush White House budget chief is not your run-of-the-mill intellectual. His style is to be down-home, but his record of accomplishment is dazzling.

The turnout was a reminder that during the Reagan and Bush years the Republican Party mustered battalions of policy wonks who were at least the equal of their Democratic counterparts. Most of them have retired to think tanks and law firms now, but they are plainly eager to get back into the battle if Daniels summons them to the 2012 campaign.

The notables who turned out to honor the Indiana governor suggest that politically, all of these associations may be problematic. Former vice president Dan Quayle, now removed from Indiana to Arizona, introduced his former colleague with warm words of praise. A spotlight caught former defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld offering his congratulations to Daniels as well.

One could not help but think that if the Democrats were filming this session, they would dwell on Daniels's links to those two figures from the Republican past, rather than the policy gurus who filled the room. Still, in a party where a candidate such as Angle can be the nominee against the majority leader, brains are clearly a precious commodity. What we saw in Washington on Thursday night was a reminder that despite the occasional appearance, Republicans do not lack in that regard.

davidbroder@washpost.com

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