Mitt Romney is smiling Sunday. Maybe Tim Pawlenty and Jon Huntsman too. The rest of the Republican Party? Not so much.
Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels’s decision not to run for president, which he announced during a middle-of-the-night e-mail to a select group of supporters on Sunday morning, robs the Republican Party of a leading contender to defeat President Obama and deepens the disillusion of many conservatives who see their party’s presidential field as uninspiring and weak. And it already has renewed pleas for another candidate to enter the race, whether it's Texas Gov. Rick Perry or New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie or House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., even amid their repeated protestations that they don’t plan to run.
Daniels’s absence, if it doesn’t draw another candidate into the race, appears to ease Romney’s path to the nomination, but it will also heighten the focus on—and increase the competition for—the upper-class, college-educated Republicans who are focused more on economic than social issues, and who therefore could have been a key Daniels constituency.
Daniels had convinced many Republicans he could best tackle the country’s multitrillion-dollar deficit, touting his service as President George W. Bush’s first budget director and a sterling conservative record as governor.
During a well-received speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference in February that prompted widespread calls for him to run for president, he characterized the burgeoning debt as one of the gravest threats to ever face the country—the new “red menace.” But he also evinced a nonconfrontational style, urging Republicans to avoid some of the social issues that turn off independent voters. His speech at CPAC featured a plea to Republicans to attract voters who, in his words, don’t listen to Rush Limbaugh.
Romney now has a better chance of consolidating that base of support—key for him if, as he did in 2008, he continues to struggle with blue-collar voters.
But former Minnesota Gov. Pawlenty and former Utah Gov. Huntsman also now have a bigger opening to compete for those voters. Like Daniels and Romney, Pawlenty can tout his experience as a chief executive, along with a persona that emphasizes his “Minnesota nice” qualities. He also has one less fellow Midwestern governor to compete against in Iowa, even if Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., could cut into his advantage there.
Huntsman likely faces a steeper climb to prove his conservative credentials because of his role in the Obama administration as ambassador to China and his past support for cap-and-trade programs and civil unions. But Daniels’s absence on the ballot in New Hampshire could help him compete there with Romney, which he appears intent on doing after barnstorming the Granite State this weekend.
Of late, the focus on candidates not running for president has overshadowed those who are seeking the nomination. A month ago, Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, a former Republican National Committee chairman, made headlines when he declined to run despite widespread popularity among Washington Republicans. Last week, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who could have arguably been the front-runner for the GOP nomination after a second-place finish in 2008, announced on his Fox News TV show he would not seek the nomination either.
And former House Speaker Newt Gingrich spent much of his first week as an official candidate apologizing for calling Ryan’s Medicare plans “radical.” The remarks, which Gingrich later recanted, brought an avalanche of criticism down on his campaign from nearly all conservative quarters and raised widespread doubts his campaign would survive much longer.
Of the remaining GOP field, only Pawlenty, Huntsman, and Romney are arguably the most able to raise the funds and marshal the support necessary for a long presidential campaign. Romney and Huntsman in particular carry a lot of baggage with Republican voters. A host of second-tier candidates, including Bachmann; former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson; Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas; former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum; and former Godfather’s Pizza CEO Herman Cain are also in the race or likely to run.
That conservatives considered a 5-foot-7, 60-something, balding budget wonk one of their best chances to defeat President Obama is a testament to the pessimism many Republicans feel about their crop of presidential hopefuls.
For all his budget bona fides, Daniels was still unknown and untested nationally. Only 35 percent of Republicans knew who he was, according to the latest Gallup poll, and unlike Romney, he had never faced the scrutiny reserved for front-running presidential candidates. An array of legislative achievements in Indiana also wouldn’t erase the stark contrast he would face when shaking hands with the more telegenic, much taller Obama.
He also would have had to fend off conservatives skeptical about his call for a “truce” on social issues. Even with polls showing GOP voters focused intently on the economy, the comment could have hurt him with social conservatives, who still play an important role in Iowa and South Carolina. With Romney claiming home turf in his neighboring state of New Hampshire, Daniels’s path to the nomination in the primary’s early states would have been difficult at best.
All the hype that surrounded Daniels came even as the candidate himself sent few public signals he was running for president. At a much-hyped speech at the American Enterprise Institute earlier this month, the governor complimented the president’s education policies and mentioned a campaign only after being asked. He admitted he knew little about foreign policy and never even hinted at visiting Iowa or New Hampshire.
The GOP’s inability to settle on a candidate to run against Obama is similar to the indecision and discontent that plagued Democrats in the run-up to the 1992 election, when George H.W. Bush was seen as politically invulnerable after the Gulf War. That Democratic field was dubbed derisively “the seven dwarves.” Of course, concern over the economy later helped Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton defeat Bush, a reminder that sweeping conclusions made the year before a general election are unreliable.
Even as Daniels was quietly laying the groundwork for a run, according to people close to him, he was intent on underscoring his deep ambivalence to a bid whenever he was in public.
Some advisers to Daniels thought he was leaning toward entering the race, particularly after a successful legislative session in Indianapolis that ended in late April. But they always emphasized only the governor and his family really knew what he was thinking. The concerns stemmed in part from the fact that Daniels and his wife, Cheri, divorced in the early 1990s before remarrying four years later—details of what exactly happened have remained a secret but were likely to emerge under the magnifying glass of a presidential campaign.
One adviser close to Daniels said the governor and his children used a speech Cheri gave to the Indiana Republican Party two weeks ago to gauge media reaction, and the family was unhappy with how she was portrayed.
Even as Daniels’s decision not to run prompts calls for other long-rumored candidates to enter, most of them denied Sunday they’re interested. Mike DuHaime, Christie’s political adviser, told National Journal the governor’s plans have not changed, even as a delegation of Iowa Republicans is set to meet with him urging a campaign. A spokesman for Perry said the governor has no intention of running.
Ryan, on NBC's Meet the Press, also said he was not interested in a bid.