Daniels spent about a third of his speech on education and delved into specifics, proposing that some students be given the option of finishing their education in 11 years instead of 12.
He concluded by making a push for the use of tax dollars to pay for private school tuition for some students who cannot find the right traditional public school and whose families can't afford private tuition, a matter that has become a wedge issue in the larger debate over education.
"We should let these families apply dollars that the state spends on their child to the non-government school of their choice," he said.
"It will be the most controversial aspect, I think, of these reforms," said Howey of the proposal.
While he began with an economic argument, Daniels concluded with impassioned language and a moral imperative.
"At bottom, this is not about material matters. It is about the civil right, the human right, of every Indiana family to make decisions for its children," he said.
But Daniels' urgency appears to have much less to do with a potential White House run as it has to with accomplishing priorities at the state level.
"We've heard that tone all along but I think it's at a little bit more urgent pitch, because I think he realizes this is his second to the last legislative session and he knows time is running out. I think he tried to make a broader moral appeal," said Howey.
Still, acting on education would also boost his credibility as a presidential candidate.
"In a Republican primary, I think he wants to come out as a robust education reformer and it's the one area that he consistently points out where he is pretty much on the same page with Pres. Obama," said Howey.
Pawlenty, who is seriously considering a White House bid, kicked off his book tour in Washington last week and delivered a speech that also addressed education. He praised former D.C. schools chancellor Michelle Rhee and touted his work in leading the state to link teacher pay to results.
"While we were waiting for superman, superwoman was pushed aside. Her name was Michelle Rhee," said Pawlenty.
Pawlenty pointed to Minnesota as an example of a place where positive steps in education have been made. "We are the first state in the nation to offer performance pay statewide," he said.
While there were similarities in the two speeches -- both deployed a larger moral argument and advocated for school choice -- the main difference was the intended audience. Daniels was addressing the state of Indiana, while Pawlenty, no longer a governor, appeared to aim for a broader audience. And the former Minnesota governor used the opportunity to level some criticism at national Democrats.
"When people say, 'What can we do about it?' And they come to town like this and say, 'We're for the poor, we're for the disadvantaged," Pawlenty said. "And one of the first things they do is eliminate the scholarship under this administration and the former Democratic-controlled Congress -- for scholarships for poor children in Washington D.C. to go to school of their choice -- shame on them."
For both Daniels and Pawlenty, there are also liabilities to consider. In Pawlenty's case, his own record may be an issue. Carleton College political scientist Steven Schier said the effort to link teacher pay to performance "hasn't been a comprehensive statewide reform." And Pawlenty's overall record on education may not be a show-stopper.
"The resume has some features on it, but it certainly doesn't rival George W. Bush's education reform record in Texas, for example, before the 2000 race," said Schier. "He has some credibility on it, but he's not going to be able to dominate the issue."
But some Republicans in Minnesota point to Pawlenty's effort in standing up to the teachers union in a tough legislative environment and working to reform in the way some teachers are compensated, a move called "Quality Compensation." Fifty school districts and 54 charter schools have implemented programs or have been approved to implement "Q Comp" for the 2010-11 school year, according to the state Dept. of Education.
"Against the strong opposition of the teachers union, Education Minnesota, and a lot of legislators, he fought to get that enacted, and he did," said Gregg Peppin, a Minnesota GOP strategist.
One potential charge Daniels could have to address in a GOP primary is the notion that he is too closely aligned with the Obama administration on education, a criticism that may be toxic considering the likely conservative tone of the Republican race.