Daniels used savvy to duck national scrutiny

(WISH Photo, file)

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Of the many incisive political calls made by former Gov. Mitch Daniels in his lengthy work in politics, one of the sharpest may have been walking right up to the line of a White House run and then pulling back.

Daniels’ reason for not running is well known at this point — his wife and four daughters exercised their family “veto” right. But his flirtation with the idea gave an already popular Republican extensive national exposure without any of the crippling scrutiny that comes from a White House run.

A new book by national PR honcho Don Cogman details at great length Daniels’ pre-campaign for the White House from October 2009 through May 2011. The book, “Run, Mitch, Run,” comes as another Indiana governor is going through the same motions Daniels went through almost exactly four years ago.

Gov. Mike Pence’s supporters have been increasingly floating his name for the White House, and Pence has encouraged the talk with national appearances in support of other Republican candidates and meetings with top national donors. It’s also allowed him to “tell Indiana’s story” on a national stage, at least his version of it, while avoiding the dissection of that story that would happen with a presidential campaign.

It’s a tough act, working to keep one’s name in the national spotlight while avoiding any of the negatives that come from that attention. It’s also a reminder that Daniels, whose first campaign was built on an every-Hoosier image of sleepovers at strangers’ homes, stops on the trail in “RV One” and flannel shirts, is also one of the finest politicians this state has seen in terms of sheer strategy.

It’s not often that a book is written about not running for president, but Daniels and his team (many of whom now work for him at Purdue University) work hard to keep him in the spotlight. The book details at incredible length the actual work — some would call it a pre-campaign, or shadow campaign — that goes into whether someone exposes themselves to a run for the White House.

The peril of exposing himself to a full-blown campaign for the White House was clear to Daniels and his supporters and later was exposed to the public in part through Mark Halperin and John Heilemann’s recounting of the 2012 campaign. Details of Daniels’ divorce — recounted in court files long kept under wraps in Indiana — promised to put the family’s travails front and center on the national stage.

As Heilemann and Halperin wrote, possible GOP competitor Jon Hunstman’s campaign had already leaked the details of the divorce to Washington media. And Daniels’ standard line for dismissing questions about his divorce and reconciliation — “If you like a good story, you’ll love ours” — was already being dismissed itself by a national press corps far more aggressive than anything he had faced in Indiana.

In public, the divorce was the albatross that most political types knew about. But Cogman offers up many more concerns that Daniels and their team had from being grilled about his work in the George W. Bush administration to his background as a pharmaceutical executive. (Cogman also, of course, offers up a long list of positives for why Daniels should have run for president, not least of which was managerial experience.)

In the end, Daniels decided against running. He announced his decision in May 2011, just a few weeks after he wrapped up a “long session” of Indiana’s General Assembly — and a successful push for a sweeping education overhaul. It was 18 months before the 2012 election, but still somewhat “late” in a game that was already underway behind the scenes for more than a year at that point.

Ironically, Pence has set an almost identical deadline for himself, saying he will announce his decision after the upcoming long session, roughly 18 months out from the 2016 election. The question now is whether he will subject himself to the public vetting that most presidential candidates go through, or stop just short.

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