President Bush admiringly called him "the Blade," for the gleam in his budget-cutting eye. Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.) blasted him as "little Caesar." Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) once told him the only way he could fix his relationship with Congress was to "go home to Indiana."

Mitchell E. Daniels Jr. did just that.

Now, 16 months later, the former White House budget director is in a tight campaign for governor against the incumbent Democrat, appealing to voters with a decidedly mellow motto: "My man Mitch," a Bush coinage.

While Joseph E. Kernan, the engaging incumbent, has struggled to find a unified theme after 16 years of Democratic rule, his Republican challenger has built support with a policy wonk's focus on Indiana's economic troubles and a first-time campaigner's readiness to talk to voters anywhere.

"He has been very good at staying on message and not getting rattled, and working it and working it," said Bill Blomquist, professor at the Indianapolis campus shared by Indiana and Purdue universities. "Mitch Daniels has managed to out-Hoosier Joe Kernan. He's become a dude in a plaid shirt and an RV trying to find the best tenderloin sandwich in Indiana."

That's a neat trick for a Princeton public policy graduate who knows the halls of Congress better than the corridors of the Indiana statehouse.

Never an elected politician himself, Daniels, 55, was chief of staff to Sen. Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.) and political director in Ronald Reagan's White House. He made $27 million in 2001, when he ended his tenure at pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly and Co., roughly 280 times as much as his opponent, a well-liked former Vietnam prisoner of war and career politician.

"This is the campaign I've wanted to see some Republican run, which is about attacking the stereotype" of the uncaring Republican, Daniels said one recent day aboard his motor home, which is covered in autographs like a plaster cast. "Be as authentic as you can be in this role. And I think it's working. It's me."

"Just a guy in a sweater and an RV," Bernie Toon, Kernan's press secretary, said with a laugh. "It's one of the more interesting cases of extreme makeovers I've seen."

Daniels has enjoyed the advantage of time, money and a state that has struggled mightily. Heavy industry has fled Indiana without being replaced. Parents complain that their grown children are leaving. Young workers say there is little to keep them in the state. Many business and political leaders seem flummoxed.

The governor and a state legislature with a narrow Democratic majority are facing a budget squeeze that has forced cuts in jobs and social services. Enter Daniels, often admired for his smarts, yet once branded a one-man "axis of evil."

"Different job, different job description," Daniels said of his Washington persona. "That was just the way I saw my role. Any argument I was having, the president didn't have to have. It was uncomfortable at times, but I didn't mind. I knew I wasn't going to be there forever."

In a state where Bush holds a comfortable lead, Daniels is not shy about making the connection with his former boss. The president appeared for him here, as did Laura Bush, Vice President Cheney and White House Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr., who reported to Daniels in the Reagan White House.

"I'm proud of that association, but I don't ask Hoosiers to vote for me just because of that. I want to earn office on the basis of our program for the state and our ability to act on it," said Daniels, who described the governorship as the only job he would ever run for. Why? "The potential to take executive action. Governor of Indiana is at a scale big enough to matter."

Daniels, who started running television ads early, is well-funded and said he has not contributed any of his fortune. He and the aides who have joined him for three laps of the state's 92 counties distribute green and white "My Man Mitch" T-shirts. On long drives, he sits at his laptop and composes an epistle for his Web site.

Kernan, 58, a former Notre Dame baseball catcher, is an accidental governor who became a reluctant candidate. He won three elections for mayor of South Bend -- the last one with 82 percent of the vote -- and was twice elected lieutenant governor as the understudy to Gov. Frank L. O'Bannon.

He surprised Indiana's political community in 2002 by announcing his retirement from politics rather than race for the top job this year. Kernan told his friend John Roos, "I just want to have a beer in my back yard on a Tuesday night. I've got a great job. I've enjoyed it, but I want to go back to South Bend."

Then, in September 2003, O'Bannon had a stroke and died. Kernan took over. Praised for pulling the state together, he decided to run. Roos said Kernan simply concluded he could make a difference. "Joe's very competitive," said Roos, a University of Notre Dame political science professor, "and when he does something, he does it well."

Kernan appeared more at ease than Daniels when the two met for a debate last week. He introduced himself as if for the first time, mentioning his seven sisters, his stint in the Navy -- but not his captivity -- and his South Bend success. He tried to preempt Daniels by citing "changes that matter."

Daniels, playing the outsider, was more pointed. Reciting a list of grim statistics about Indiana's lost jobs, growing welfare rolls and budget troubles, he asked, "If this is a good record, what would a bad one look like?"

The challenger said Kernan might be new to his job, but bears some responsibility for four terms of Democratic leadership. "Thousands of Hoosiers have been hit hard," Daniels charged, "and it was this administration that hit 'em."

Kernan, with a wry smile, painted Daniels as "my friend from Washington." He said a highway from Indianapolis to Evansville, the state's largest and third-largest cities, might exist if only Daniels had sent a little money Indiana's way.

But Daniels replayed his role as "the Blade" and said over Kernan's objection that the highway should be a toll road. Because that's where money comes from. Whether drivers like it or not. "We do not," Daniels said, "have the money to do it otherwise."