Indiana first lady Cheri Daniels participates in a milking contest at the Indiana State Fair last August. (Charlie Nye/The Star)

Indiana first lady Cheri Herman Daniels is a “lifelong Hoosier” who has four daughters with Gov. Mitch Daniels. Her official state Web site also shares that the blond and personable 61-year-old enjoys reading, golfing, exercising, cooking and spending time with family and friends. In recent months, she has participated in the “Cheri’s Chores” program, in which she acquires new skills. (“Cheri’s Chores Assignment 1: Learn how to drive a dump truck and operate a gravel shooter.” No. 8: “Learn how to be a lunch lady.”)

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As she prepares to deliver the keynote address at the Indiana state GOP dinner Thursday, Daniels has taken on a new task: shaping the Republican presidential field.

“The decision is in the hands of his wife,” John Sununu, former New Hampshire Republican governor and a close friend of Daniels, told the Web site RealClearPolitics in March. “I know for sure she has the final say on this campaign.”

If the first lady is the deciding vote, she is not an easy sell. She has expressed her own reservations about the consequences a presidential bid might have on her family. In a March interview with the Indianapolis Star, she said: “It will be a complete family decision. It affects every single one of my daughters and their families, too. So, yes, we’ll be in talks.”

In February, the governor told Politico that it was “safe to say” his wife, who met him long before he pursued electoral politics, wasn’t warm to a prospective run. A close aide to Daniels told the Huffington Post this week that he would “like to run” but had not convinced his wife.

Republicans on the ground in Indiana said this for-the-family’s-sake political rhetoric is not the usual stalling tactic. “He is sincere when he says that family considerations are important,” said one Indiana Republican official.

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The governor’s political enemies — those who are eager to box out a promising contender with a reputation for fiscal seriousness, establishment backing and intellectual heft — are taking him at his word.

A rival campaign has identified the first lady’s reticence as a pressure point before she steps fully into the limelight. The couple has a complicated personal history. They divorced in 1994, and Cheri Daniels moved to California, where she remarried. The future governor, then a senior executive at the pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly, raised the couple’s four daughters, who at the time spanned the ages of 8 to 14. Cheri Daniels later returned, and the couple remarried in 1997.

In exchange for anonymity, an official for another GOP prospect provided contact information for the ex-wife of the man Cheri Daniels married, in the years between her divorce and remarriage to Daniels. Other officials at potential rival campaigns to Daniels disagreed about whether the personal history of Cheri Daniels would ever be a vulnerability or even germane to the race. One key adviser to a potential candidate said that the guardedness the first lady had exhibited about her past signaled a lack of enthusiasm that, more than any personal baggage, would handicap her husband’s chances over time. An official at another candidate’s campaign said the marital history wouldn’t and shouldn’t matter.

For his part, Gov. Daniels opted to shut his eyes to the less noble aspects of presidential politics.

“I talked to the governor briefly,” said Jane Jankowski, a spokeswoman for Daniels, when asked for a response to the preemptive attack. “And Governor Daniels chooses to believe that no candidate would employ such tactics, and if someone working for a candidate did such a thing, it must not have been authorized.”

Jankowski noted that when asked by reporters in the Indiana Statehouse on Tuesday about the uptick in attacks against him, Daniels responded, “Exposing yourself to harsh and sometimes cruel and untrue things is not something you do lightly.”

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Gov. Daniels, a Harley-Davidson enthusiast who has served at the Capitol and as budget director for President George W. Bush, has said he will decide in the coming weeks. And some Republican leaders, fretful that their field is woefully devoid of a serious contender, have urged him to enter the race.

On Monday, House Speaker John Boehner offered unprompted praise of Daniels on NBC’s “Today” show, saying “I think Mitch Daniels is looking pretty seriously at this — another person who’s got a real track record of reform in his state, the kinds of reforms we need to have in Washington, D.C.” That same day, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie said of Daniels on a radio talk show: “He’s certainly somebody who I have enormous respect for and would give real consideration to supporting.”

It is into this context of heightened speculation that Cheri Daniels will deliver her high-profile speech Thursday. Never mind that the governor’s office made clear that she will not announce any decision, nor will she say much of interest. “She thought it’d be a fun opportunity to share plenty of entertaining stories, photos and videos,” said her chief of staff, Julie Aud. For political diviners in Indiana and Washington, however, her star turn amounts to a significant development and suggests that she is willing to face more scrutiny.

Daniels has developed a wholesome image as the popular first lady of Indiana. Her posts on Twitter couldn’t be more vanilla. “It was a beautiful day to spend in Brown County,” she wrote on March 23. “Attaching the milking machine to the first cow,” she wrote Jan. 18. In a video interview last summer with the Indianapolis Star, she talks affectionately about how she met her husband, who was eating lunch at his desk, and disclosed the domestic tidbit that “he never closes a drawer; he never closes a cabinet door.”

Other potential candidates have had to contend with more sensational marital discord.

Donald Trump has long been known for dating much younger women and then divorcing them for much younger women. Newt Gingrich, who announced his presidential bid Wednesday, left his first wife, his high school geometry teacher, for his second wife, Marianne Gingrich, whom he left for his current wife, Callista Gingrich. A front-page profile of Callista Gingrich in Tuesday’s New York Times ended with a friend’s politically palatable assessment that the “great couple” had “a nontraditional start.”

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In 2008, Mitt Romney quipped that of all the Republicans in the field, only the Mormon had one wife. This time around, fellow Mormon Jon Huntsman joins him in that category. Tim Pawlenty has, if anything, sought to spice up depictions of his marriage. In an early 2010 foray into Iowa, Pawlenty opened a speech by saying, “I’m very thankful for my red-hot smoking wife, the first lady of Minnesota.”

Gov. Daniels also relies on a standard line. When discussing his divorce and remarriage to Cheri Daniels, he often remarks: “If you like happy endings, you’ll love our story.”

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