After years of shunning the spotlight, the first lady of Indiana is stepping out -- intriguingly, just as interest in her husband’s potential presidential ambitions is at its peak.
Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels has acknowledged his decision hinges on family considerations. And his notoriously press-shy wife, Cheri, is slated on Thursday evening to address 1,000 Indiana Republican activists -- the largest crowd at the state party’s annual dinner in a generation -- presumably clamoring for a White House bid by their favorite son.
If the intense interest in the speech is a sign of the unease among some Republicans with the current crop of presidential contenders, it also reflects a tacit acknowledgement that political wives -- and yes, most political spouses still are wives, especially at the state and national level -- play a major role in the choice of whether to run for public office. And in an era when technology subjects public figures to nonstop surveillance, their spouses' lack of enthusiasm for the campaign trail can be a dealbreaker.
An unusual personal history heightens the sensitivity of Daniels’s decision about whether to submit his family to the scrutiny of a presidential campaign. Cheri Daniels filed for divorce in 1993, moved to California and remarried. After that marriage broke up, she wed Mitch Daniels again in 1997.
“It makes sense that there would be some reluctance by Mrs. Daniels about a national campaign because the reality is that when someone runs for president, their whole personal life is laid bare," said Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University. “I don’t think they will be able to shield themselves from those kinds of questions."
The governor and his wife, who have four daughters, have never given interviews about their breakup and reunion. Daniels’s only public comment about his marriage came in 2004. “If you like happy endings, you’ll love our story," he told The Indianapolis Star. The couple's two marriages barely came up in his gubernatorial campaigns, but a presidential bid would draw an unparalleled level of media attention to their off-again, on-again story.
“The only reason it’s relevant is that it shows how bonded they are,’’ said political consultant Kim Alfano, who advised Daniels on his 2004 and 2008 campaigns and insisted that his wife's reputation as the reluctant political partner is overblown. “I think Cheri has been unfairly marked as hesitant about a campaign. It’s his hesitation to put his family through it. He’s very protective of his girls and his wife.’’
The political hazards for candidates with messy personal lives were most recently apparent when another 2012 presidential hopeful, Newt Gingrich, attempted to explain his past infidelity by blaming his passion for public service, prompting a skeptical backlash in the press. Gingrich has also sought to rehabilitate his image by showcasing his partnership with his current wife, Callista. The lead photograph on his website is of the two of them, and she is a frequent presence at his speeches and book signings.
While women are no longer expected merely to gaze adoringly at their husbands on the campaign trail, it’s still the exception to hear about a politics-averse spouse. The wife of former U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell pushed him away from a presidential bid in 1996 and reportedly even threatened to leave him if he ran. More recently, Michelle Obama had to be talked into her husband’s long-shot presidential bid because of concerns about the toll it would take on their family.
“There’s no question that these are family decisions, but it’s become more acceptable to see it discussed in the press,’’ said John Sununu, who served as governor and Republican party chairman in New Hampshire, the state that is home of the nation’s first presidential primary.
At least for now, Cheri Daniels is steering clear of potentially awkward topics. The governor’s confidantes say that Thursday’s speech will be a lighthearted look at her activities as first lady, not on her husband’s potential campaign. Brian McGrath, who leads the governor's Aiming Higher political committee, said Daniels will give "a great speech" about "her wide range of exciting experiences as first lady of Indiana" -- not the sort of advance billing designed to raise expectations and attract a horde of political reporters.
A peek at the Indiana first lady's limited public appearances suggests she'd be a campaign asset. She's attractive, and her warmth and sense of humor are apparent in videos of her monthly “Cheri’s Chores" assignments, in which she takes on tasks from learning how to milk a cow to drive a dump truck.
Public policy is not her purview, but like many traditional political spouses, Daniels has taken on pet projects. Her chief passion is raising awareness about heart disease in women. She also likes to talk about her love of cooking. Her recipes for chili chicken and curried chicken in cheese sauce are posted on her official website, along with information about purchasing her Family First Cookbook.
Her short biography gives a deliberately conventional description of a woman with a decidedly unconventional marital past: “The first lady views her most important job as being a mother and wife. She enjoys reading, golfing, exercising, cooking and spending time with family and friends."
But when she steps up to the podium in Indianapolis on Thursday night -- her body language and every word parsed relentlessly for clues to her husband’s political plans -- she will be adding a new line to her resume: potential presidential surrogate.
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