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Rothenberg: Can Mitch Daniels Play the Candidate Role in Indiana?

They are the two words most likely to bring a smile to the faces of Republicans who care about governors races: Mitch Daniels. [IMGCAP(1)]

Daniels, the director of the Office of Management and Budget, is often mentioned as the Republican Party’s strongest possible candidate for governor in Indiana in 2004. But if Daniels would be his party’s strongest nominee, he would also be an imperfect candidate.

I first met Daniels, who is a graduate of Princeton University and holds a law degree from Georgetown, back in the early 1980s, when he was executive director of the National Republican Senatorial Committee under the chairmanship of Sen. Dick Lugar (Ind.). I always liked Daniels and found him to be smart and straight-forward, a bottom line, down-to-earth guy in a town filled with people who see only what they want to see.

Daniels has strong ties to the Hoosier State, including his years of service (as chief of staff, as well as other positions) to the popular Lugar and as senior vice president of corporate strategy and policy for Eli Lilly & Co., the large Indianapolis-based pharmaceutical firm. Daniels was also president of the company’s North American pharmaceutical operations.

But while Mitch Daniels is a person of accomplishment (and I’ll bet a terrific fundraiser), I’m not yet convinced that he is the sure-fire winner as Indiana governor that many Republicans and conservatives assume him to be.

While he is a household name inside the Capital Beltway and a known commodity in the Indianapolis corporate world, most voters in Indiana won’t know much about Daniels. (He’s no Steve Alford, after all.) Daniels has never run for office, and he doesn’t have the kind of personal flair that would generate lots of media coverage.

In fact, Daniels is pretty low key. He’s about as flamboyant as most accountants. Smart, disciplined and fiscally conservative? Sure. Entertaining, charismatic and spontaneous? Well …

Now I fully understand that most voters aren’t looking for an entertainer for governor (except for those wild and crazy folks in Minnesota, of course), but they usually are looking for someone with whom they can connect on a personal level. Can Daniels fill that bill? It’s an open question.

If Daniels becomes the GOP nominee for governor, he’ll be saddled with considerable federal budget issues in the general election campaign.

Fairly or unfairly, the onetime Lugar aide will be criticized for turning a big surplus into a budget deficit and for opposing new government spending, some of which will seem attractive to some Hoosiers. Anyone whose job it is to control federal spending is going to make enemies. Yes, even in fiscally conservative Indiana.

If the economy remains weak, the deficit grows and President Bush finds himself in trouble, Daniels will also get the blame.

Finally, being OMB director hasn’t exactly proven to be a launching pad for elective office recently. Two of the past dozen or so OMB directors came from Congress — former Reps. David Stockman (R-Mich.) and Leon Panetta (D-Calif.) — but only one, James C. Miller III, ran for office after leaving OMB. And Miller lost a Virginia GOP Senate primary to Oliver North.

The other chiefs — Franklin Raines, Alice Rivlin, Jack Lew, Richard Darman, James McIntyre, Burt Lance, James T. Lynn, Roy Ash, George Schultz and Casper Weinberger — didn’t hold elective office before or after their service at OMB.

That may be because the OMB director invariably has to make tough decisions that earn him or her more enemies than friends.

With all of these reservations, I’m certainly not suggesting that Daniels can’t be elected governor of Indiana next year. Indeed, if Daniels runs, he should be a formidable contender. Given the other candidates in the primary and general election fields, he might well be the frontrunner. But D.C. Republicans ought not kid themselves that he’d be an ideal candidate for office. He would have many questions to answer.

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