By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 27, 2011; 9:07 PM
Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels and Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour have been comrades in arms in Republican politics for decades, friends who have followed similar paths. Both worked in the Reagan White House. Both had success in business before turning to elective politics.
Now, both are weighing whether to run for president in 2012. Whether they do will have a significant impact on the shape and quality of the GOP field. But they are approaching the decision in very different ways. Barbour is leaning in, showing clear interest and taking steps to get ready. Daniels is engaged in a very public discussion about what to do but otherwise is holding back.
Barbour, in an interview over the weekend during a National Governors Association meeting in Washington, said he wants to be ready to move quickly if he decides to run. "I am doing things now that are part of my decision-making process, but also that if I do decide to run, I don't begin it from a standing start," he said. "And I've been very pleased with the response. . . . What I'm asking people to do is keep their powder dry."
Daniels, also in Washington for the governors meeting, has taken the opposite view. "To run is an active verb," he said. "I have not done anything active, and I haven't asked anybody to. I've sure listened to folks and met with people who wanted to meet with me. I haven't lifted a finger."
Neither sees an easy road ahead, given the rigors of presidential campaigns. But each thinks he is equipped to run a strong race.
There's little question about the ability of Barbour, a former Republican Party chairman, to raise money or put together a national network. He's also confident that he has the right candidate skills. "If I run, I'm going to try to compete everywhere," he said. "I think I can compete in a big rural state like Iowa. I think I can compete in a small New England state like New Hampshire, because I am very comfortable and enjoy one-on-one small-group politics."
Daniels makes clear that he doesn't think that having held back would hamper him. "There are all kinds of reasons a presidential thing might not work out," he said. "But so far, I believe those reasons would not include that we couldn't raise the money, that we wouldn't have a very strong team of supporters, very well-known people across the spectrum. It wouldn't be that we can't get in and more than hold our own in retail politics. I know how to do it."
The slow-starting Republican race got some forward motion Sunday when the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that former House speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.) will form a presidential exploratory committee. A Gingrich adviser said that papers will be filed this week or next and that a decision will be made in the spring.
Gingrich's likely candidacy came as no surprise. Others who are almost certain to run include former governors Mitt Romney of Massachusetts and Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota and former senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania. Less certain are former governors Sarah Palin of Alaska, Mike Huckabee of Arkansas and Jon Huntsman of Utah.
The addition of Barbour and Daniels, who are well-respected within their party but who trail Huckabee, Romney, Palin and Gingrich in early national polls, would add significantly to the collective strength of the Republican field.
Daniels is enjoying a surge of interest in the wake of his well-crafted and well-received speech to the Conservative Political Action Conference this month. There he warned of a new "red menace" of red ink and urged Republicans to reach beyond their base for support. Conservative columnists George Will and David Brooks have written glowingly about him, as have other columnists.
Daniels takes their encouragement in stride. "I got an e-mail from someone who said, 'It's over, you've won the pundit primary,' " he said. "I wrote back and said, 'Doom. Certain doom.' "
Daniels faces a more serious problem: the distrust among some conservatives he has engendered by his call for a truce on social issues because of the severity of the fiscal crisis he sees looming.
Barbour has been through a period of rough treatment in the national media over episodes involving racial issues. He said the latest, which revolved around a license plate named for an early leader of the Ku Klux Klan, grew out of misinformation about the status of the idea, which he said was rejected by a state agency before most people knew about it and never got far beyond that.
Barbour said the controversies over race overlook his support, starting several years ago, for a civil rights museum in Mississippi and the upcoming events commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Freedom Riders. But he recognizes that he might carry an extra burden if he runs.
"I have reconciled myself to the fact that some people on the left who don't like me or don't like conservative Christian Republicans from the Deep South are going to criticize anything I do," he said.
Would that make it harder for him to win the nomination for president? "I don't know, because nobody who's written anything bad about me [on this issue] would ever vote for me or any other Republican," he said. "So I've just got to call them like I see them and do what I think's the right thing to do. But will it have any effect on my deciding whether to run? No."
Barbour will make that decision in April. Daniels will decide when his legislative session, now in an uproar over labor rights, concludes in the spring. And all the prospective candidates will be keen to know whether they are in or out.