Cheri Daniels Speaks: Reading Tea Leaves in Indiana

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This is what the guessing game has come to: I spent part of Thursday night watching a choppy feed of a banquet in Indianapolis, trying to interpret a speech given by a woman desperate to escape the klieg lights of politics. Cheri Daniels, the wife of Indiana Governor and possible presidential contender Mitch Daniels, did just fine in her rare foray into the spotlight. In a speech designed to showcase the All-American lives she and her husband lead, Cheri dutifully regaled a rapt crowd with tales of cow-milking and corn-husking. . What she didn’t do was provide the hint the crowd was hoping for: some indication that her husband would join the scant field vying for the GOP presidential nomination.

This was no surprise. Republican insiders spread word in advance that the Hoosier State’s First Lady wouldn’t be using her appearance at the Indiana Republican Party spring dinner to break news. The avalanche of coverage attested not just to the extent to which supporters and observers alike are hungry for a credible new entry into the presidential race, but also why Cheri Daniels is wary about being a political spouse in the first place.

Mitch Daniels sounded like a man ready to run. After the crowd was treated to a Daniels highlight reel that resembled an action-flick trailer–Mitch touring factories! Record-breaking job creation! The first AAA credit rating in state history!–the governor took the stage to chants of “Run, Mitch, Run.” Daniels delivered a coy, confident speech. “I’m not saying I won’t do it,” he teased. His address offered a preview of what his campaign might look like. It stressed infrastructural improvements, cast the GOP of an inclusive party (“We don’t fit their neat little stereotypes”) and steered clear of anti-Obama bromides. “The only red meat we have here is what’s on the menu,” he said.

Interest in the speech was sparked not just by the prospect of a Daniels candidacy or by the role his reticent wife would play in green-lighting one, but also by the couple’s complicated history. The pair split in the early 1990s. Cheri Daniels moved to California and married another man. Four years later, after that marriage dissolved, the couple remarried. The First Lady has kept her distance from politics, confining her public appearances to events like state fairs and advocacy for children’s literacy. “When she shows up somewhere, you know she wants to be there,” Daniels said of his wife Thursday night. Her wariness of a presidential bid has been widely cited as the primary roadblock to her husband’s candidacy, and the attention her speech drew carried a tinge of voyeurism, a public glimpse into a private marriage.

The whole evening was carefully choreographed, featuring photos of the couple in joint Halloween costumes and lots of mutual praise. In his rare comments about the couple’s reconciliation, Daniels has said, “If you like happy endings, you’ll love our story.” Indeed, although it may not mollify social conservatives who expect their presidential candidates to lead impossibly spotless private lives. It’s also true that the Daniels’ marriage is none of our business. And if Cheri is leery about subjecting their lives to the scrutiny a bid would bring, it’s hard to blame her. Better she hesitate now than later.

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