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Does Daniels Really Fit GOP’s Bill? Maybe So

He is definitely not the person central casting would have sent to play the role of president of the United States. But is Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels at the right place at the right time?

Now that Indiana’s legislative session is over, Daniels promises to decide in a matter of weeks whether he will run for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination. It will be an important decision for him, as well as for his party.

I have no idea what Daniels, whom I first met 25 years ago when he was executive director of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, will decide, but I’ve talked to plenty of political insiders and campaign operatives who think the governor would be a formidable contender.

In many ways, Daniels is a columnist’s dream. He certainly doesn’t look like a media-age politician, let alone a president. He is thoughtful, especially about budgetary matters, and he can talk about both policy and politics. All of that makes his candidacy noteworthy to those of us looking for an interesting angle and a new narrative.

But columnists often get hooked on the offbeat, and I can still remember some of the chatter about then-Illinois Sen. Paul Simon’s bid for the 1988 Democratic nomination for president.

Many of us said that Simon could be a potentially strong candidate precisely because, with his bow tie, glasses and professorial demeanor, he was the perfect anti-politician, and because his very liberal record presumably would play to the party’s base.

But Simon’s campaign sputtered after he came in second in the Iowa caucuses behind fellow Midwesterner Dick Gephardt, who looked more the part. Simon’s eventual exit from the contest was yet another nail in the casket for the “voters want someone who doesn’t look like a politician” argument.

But have things changed? Are American voters really ready to look past the packaging to what is inside?

At a relatively diminutive 5 feet 7 inches and balding, Daniels would look like a shrimp on a stage debating President Barack Obama, who stands at 6 feet 1 inch. (Daniels would be one of the shortest presidents in history if he were to be elected.) And the Indiana Republican has never been known for his stem-winding speeches or his charisma.

But one Democratic observer suggested to me recently that Daniels is the GOP’s best bet against Obama because of the obvious contrast between the two men.

If voters really are tired of Obama — if they are looking for someone who is prepared to make tough decisions even if they look unpopular, who is ready to face the nation’s economic facts of life, and who doesn’t look anything like a politician — then Daniels is an ideal vehicle, suggested the veteran Democrat.

A Republican political insider I spoke with echoed those thoughts, adding that Daniels “talks in a different language than other politicians do. He never sounds like he is reading poll-tested talking points. He has a way of speaking that is very direct and doesn’t come off as pandering. You can’t really coach that. In fact, coaching will mess it up.”

Just compare how Daniels, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty have talked about their possible candidacies.

When Daniels said that he really hadn’t thought about a White House bid, he sounded as if he meant it. And there was no evidence to demonstrate that he had made a decision. Romney and Pawlenty, on the other hand, each said for months that he hadn’t made a decision when it was clear that both had. They sounded like professional politicians. Daniels didn’t.

Voters often seek the opposite of what they have had in the White House — e.g., a youthful John Kennedy replacing the elderly Dwight Eisenhower, or reformer and outsider Jimmy Carter following Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford — so Daniels’ personal attributes could be assets, not liabilities.

“I think this is a unique point in time when a guy with his attributes may be exactly what primary voters and swing voters are looking for,” the Republican said about Daniels. “I’m not sure that he could have won the nomination last time or any other time. But this race is wide open and looking for a ‘truth teller’ [like Daniels].”

Daniels’ personal parsimony and focus on spending issues over the years might help convince key voters that he really would tighten the nation’s financial belt.

The irony in all of this, of course, is that Obama, who 20 or 30 years ago would have been regarded as unelectable because he was too different from our previous notion of the president, now looks and sounds more like a politician than a white guy from Indiana who worked on Capitol Hill for years and is in his second term as governor of the Hoosier State.

If he runs, the low-key Daniels will need to raise millions of dollars, excite Republican caucus attendees and primary voters (including social conservatives and angry tea party types) and handle the bright lights of a White House bid. That won’t be easy (especially considering the nature of his previous races), though many GOP fundraisers and activists remain on the sidelines looking for a candidate.

I don’t know whether Daniels would be a formidable contender if he runs. I expect he would be. But the first question he faces is whether he and his family even want to go through the sheer torture of a race for president. The fact that he seems conflicted about that is another refreshing sign about the governor.

Stuart Rothenberg is editor of the Rothenberg Political Report.