Handicapping the Veepstakes: Could Romney Look to Mitch Daniels?

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Darron Cummings / AP

Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels delivers the State of the State address to a joint session of the Legislature at the Statehouse Jan. 10, 2012, in Indianapolis.

Part 3 in our ongoing series. Also see our analyses of Marco Rubio and Rob Portman.

The candidate: Mitch Daniels, Governor of Indiana

The bio: The wonky two-term governor has an impeccable pedigree, having served high-level stints in federal and state government as well as the private sector. After law school at Georgetown, Daniels jump-started his Washington career as an aide to Indiana Senator Richard Lugar. Rising to Lugar’s chief of staff, he followed the Senator to the National Republican Senatorial Committee, then hopped down Pennsylvania Avenue to become a top adviser to Ronald Reagan. Decamping to Indiana near the end of Reagan’s second term, Daniels headed up a conservative think tank for a few years before becoming a top executive at the Hoosier State pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly. In 2001, he returned to Washington to run the Office of Management and Budget for George W. Bush, a post he held during the run-up to the Iraq war. He left D.C. in 2003 to oust Indiana’s Democratic incumbent government governor, and won re-election handily in 2008. A cadre of conservatives tried to coax Daniels to enter the presidential fray last year, but he parried those entreaties, citing family concerns.

(VIDEO: Governor Mitch Daniels on “Keeping the Republic”)

The case for: Daniels is something of a shorter, balder Portman clone: impressively credentialed, indisputably intelligent, a fiscal wonk whose staunch conservatism is leavened by his congeniality. “If Romney’s emphasis is going to be economic management, which appeals to a right-of-center crowd, Daniels is as good a pick as anyone,” says Bert Rockman, a political science professor at Indiana’s Purdue University. Daniels’ extensive experience in Washington makes him an appealing choice for the GOP’s Establishment wing, while his work pruning his state’s public workforce and bridging its budget shortfall opened the eyes of the Tea Party movement.

By eschewing the strident tone of his counterparts and embracing an everyman persona — an avid motorcycle rider, he rode a tattered RV around the state in his first campaign and embraced the slogan “My Man Mitch” — Daniels managed to implement a conservative agenda without arousing the ire of independents. “He’s kind of a Scott Walker without the aggressive tone,” says Rockman, noting that Daniels, who incensed Evangelicals by suggesting a “truce” on social issues, subsequently signed a bill de-funding Planned Parenthood, as well as a right-to-work law restricting union influence. “He’s actually very conservative, but the style is not combative,” Rockman says. Daniels would be viewed as a safe pick, one who would amplify Romney’s leitmotif and add a dash of plain-spoken humanity without offending any major Republican constituencies.

(PHOTOS: A History of the ‘Veepstakes’ in Pictures)

The case against: Daniels has many of the same attributes and downsides as Portman, without the benefit of hailing from a swing state like Ohio. (Yes, Obama won Indiana in 2008, but that is widely viewed as an aberration unlikely to recur.) Democrats would pummel Daniels for his Bush ties; as OMB director, he presided over profligate budgets and vastly undershot on his initial cost estimate of the Iraq War. And Indiana’s own budget woes could tarnish his image as an economic manager. Understated and self-effacing, Daniels doesn’t carry much star power, nor would he help much in the fight to make inroads with critical demographic groups (including Evangelicals still leery of Romney) or an Electoral College linchpin. “He’s a smart and capable guy, but my feeling is that’s a wasted pick,” says one Washington Republican.

In addition, Daniels would also have to grapple with many of the same privacy concerns that dissuaded him from launching his own presidential run. Daniels and his wife split for three years in the 1990s, during which time she remarried and moved to California with another man. The pair later reconciled, and in 2004 told a reporter, “If you like happy endings, you’ll love our story.” But neither he nor his press-shy wife nor their daughters are eager to have it recounted ad nauseam under the klieg lights of a presidential campaign. Daniels has been cagey about disavowing interest in the VP slot without shutting the door; he finally endorsed Romney this week, but still seems skeptical about the former Massachusetts governor’s buttoned-up style. His wife, meanwhile, has suggested joining the ticket is not an option.

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