The Campaign Waiting for Mitch Daniels

By Erin McPike - April 29, 2011

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By Erin McPike

After Indiana's legislature gavels to a close today, Mitch Daniels will enter the final phase of his decision-making process about whether to run for the presidency in 2012. But unlike some of the contenders who decided against a run in part because it takes a lot to build one from scratch, Daniels could stroll several blocks out of his Statehouse office, flip on the light switch and the campaign would be right there waiting for him (much like Jon Huntsman will have in Washington when he gets home this weekend).

With more than three decades in politics behind him, the governor has done more than develop a Rolodex he could deploy for fundraising, as most point out. The campaign operative in him also has built an organization ready to go whenever he tells them to -- and the media doesn't seem to know it yet. For the past year, he's been playing its members like piano keys as he orchestrates his national rollout.

Anthony Dolan, the chief speechwriter for the entire Reagan presidency, knows Daniels well from the time they worked together and explained, "Mitch has always been a marvel with the news dynamic." He added, "A year ago people were saying ‘Mitch who' and then comes a rollout with more elaborate choreography than a Busby Berkley musical -- we haven't seen the synchronized swimming yet, but I'm sure it's coming."

Indeed, at the same time Daniels has ruminated publicly about whether or not to run -- as Dolan put it, "for a while there the Daniels speculation was crowding out the royal wedding" -- his team also has carefully blocked out time for national reporters to descend on Indiana to profile him, one at a time. And the intrigue has grown.

In January, just before he was to appear in the Beltway to collect an award for fiscal responsibility, the New York Times' Pulitzer-winning economic writer David Leonhardt chatted with Daniels for a story that led the Business section of the Times. In late February, the Wall Street Journal's Neil King trekked along with Daniels for a profile that included a front-page photo of him on his Harley. And in April, Daniels got the front-page treatment from Dan Balz of the Washington Post.

That is to say nothing of all of the other lesser media organizations that have shown plenty of interest when it comes to Daniels -- and that comes at a time when all of the other candidates in the mix would be so lucky as to get a national profile introducing them to the electorate rather than stories that nitpick at all of their flaws.

Think Daniels is too short, too bald and too boring to be president? His Indiana cheerleaders had a retort almost a year ago: President Obama is the picture of excitement, as are some of the potential Republican contenders, and Daniels creates a good contrast -- but he does ride motorcyles. Well, he's a policy wonk and he may be a good political operative, but is he a good politician? Answer: When would you like to come to Indiana and see him campaign for the Republicans running for the Indiana House? We've got a couple of events next week.

And all of that is even before team Daniels has really gone on the offensive, but that's about to change. Starting Saturday, the Daniels administration plans to begin a promotional blitz to let people know what they accomplished in the four-month legislative session this year.

Of course, all the glowing coverage in the world would be for naught without a campaign structure. It just so happens that Indianapolis is conveniently set up for such a thing.

When Daniels walks out of the Statehouse, he has to walk a mere two blocks down West Market Street and he'll find himself in the ornate, private Columbia Club on Monument Circle. His friends, aides and associates can often be found there trying to stay out of earshot when they see a state lobbyist, and out-of-town guests are wined and dined there. It's also one of their choice locations for intimate, high-dollar fundraising events.

From there, Daniels would have to walk to the other side of the circle and then a block-and-a-half down South Meridian Street to the state GOP headquarters, which is in a large building connected to the city's Hard Rock Café.

Many operatives expect the party's real estate would be converted into a presidential campaign headquarters, as Daniels ran his gubernatorial campaigns out of those offices. Party operatives coo in their second-floor offices over the loft to the first floor with its big, open entryway and exposed brick that is also a prime locale to fit in hundreds of people for events and fundraisers.

And already in the building sits a team ready to key into a presidential campaign whenever Daniels says the word. The new GOP chairman is Eric Holcomb, who has long been Daniels' closest political adviser, and who would likely slide right into the campaign's managerial role.

Holcomb joked to RealClearPolitics this week that he has to change his cell phone battery several times each day because he's been getting so many calls from people who want to help if Daniels runs.

"I have a database of potential supporters," he said. The team also has received more than a few resumes.

Among them is a group of students based at Yale who have started a draft movement for Daniels and even aired a few low-dollar ads to goad him into the race. They've begun to gather signatures for a petition to present to Daniels to encourage him to run.

Perhaps most important, 55 of those students plan to fly into Indianapolis on May 12, when Daniels' wife, Cheri, gives her first big political speech at a state Republican Party fundraiser and encourage her, as well.

Last year, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie keynoted the dinner with about 900 attendees in the audience. The party is on pace to match that record or surpass it with Mrs. Daniels.

Aside from the supporters, there's also a sort of political advisory board in Indianapolis for Daniels to tap into. Not all of them may be on the campaign payroll -- as there have been legislative initiatives taking their time as consultants, and competitive gubernatorial and senatorial races in Indiana next year -- but it's likely all would be involved in some way.

Strategist Anne Hathaway was a chief of staff at the Republican National Committee during the 2008 convention and is close to Holcomb. She was also a regional political director for the Bush campaign in 2004 and has campaign experience dating back to the other Bush's presidential campaigns and would likely play a key role in a Daniels campaign.

Kevin Kellems, a former communications director to Vice President Cheney and director of strategy for the World Bank, now splits his time between Washington, D.C., and Indiana for his political consulting work, and recently finished helping out Sen. Dan Coats' campaign. He's also close to the Daniels team.

Cam Savage, Coats' campaign manager, now has his own firm called Limestone Strategies, where he oversaw many of the political efforts in getting through education reform, a victory Daniels clinched earlier this week. Also instrumental in that effort was the executive director of Daniels' Aiming Higher PAC, Brian McGrath, who has been running Daniels' fundraising.

Then there's Al Hubbard, an Indianapolis-based CEO who was the director of the National Economic Council under President George W. Bush and a deputy chief of staff to his father. Hubbard may be a sort of Svengali for Daniels.

In other words, there's a kitchen cabinet of political advisers who haven't exactly been twiddling their thumbs lately but who have been eager for a campaign to take shape. And in it, the Bush connections are prevalent. That raises another issue: fundraising. Between his own experience in politics, the Bush team whispering that they hope he runs, and the potential support of Haley Barbour, Daniels has a vast fundraising network.

On top of that, a longtime Indiana and national Republican operative who served in Vice President Cheney's office and was vice president of the 2008 GOP convention, Mel Raines, is now vice president of event operations for the 2012 Super Bowl, which will take place in February in Indianapolis. Those connections and the traffic to the city also may be fruitful for Daniels.

Then come the early nominating states, where Daniels has been talking to some key figures, albeit in an under-the-radar kind of way. He's kept in touch with former New Hampshire Gov. John Sununu, whom he's known for decades, and he recently spoke with Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad about education policy.

One of the most prominent names in Iowa GOP politics, attorney Doug Gross, has been meeting methodically with all of the 2012 Republican contenders and hasn't picked one to support yet. He was with Mitt Romney four years ago but is unlikely to return. He's long thought highly of Daniels and has told him to make sure he calls him as soon as he figures out his plans.

And in New Hampshire, strategist Mike Dennehy is awaiting Daniels' decision, too. Dennehy worked for both of Arizona Sen. John McCain's campaigns and had signed on with Haley Barbour in March. But he had talked with other operations before choosing the now-defunct Barbour team and told RealClearPolitics this week after Barbour's exit that he hopes Daniels runs.

Also in the Granite State, Sununu's sons Michael and James, and Jamie Burnett, are partners in the Concord-based Profile Strategy Group. Burnett was Mitt Romney's New Hampshire political director in 2008, but the trio is not working for a presidential candidate now and is open to advising a campaign this cycle. Michael Sununu has had long ties to some of Daniels' advisers, and they indicated they could support Daniels.

"Mitch Daniels is a serious and credible candidate that would have an immediate impact on the race if he chooses to run," Burnett said.

A Daniels candidacy could have a dramatic effect on the early state dynamic. For one thing, while the picture in Iowa is murky now as some of the leading candidates look to skip the state, Daniels as a Midwestern governor may try to compete there. That could force candidates like Romney and Huntsman to spend some money there so other candidates have to divert more resources to that state, as well.

More than anything, it could set up an epic four-way showdown in New Hampshire between Romney, Huntsman, Daniels and Tim Pawlenty, and shift the focus squarely onto that state.

A rap on Daniels is that he hasn't reached out much to the early states or built the groundwork for a presidential campaign, although it seems that there are strategists in both states willing to help. Instead, Daniels focused on getting his record to look just the way he wanted it to use as a trump card in a potential campaign.

So the next time Daniels says he hasn't been doing the things he needs to do in order to launch a White House bid, it's probably best not to believe him. He could still wind up not running, but he has set himself up to do so if he gives his advisers the nod.

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Erin McPike is a national political reporter for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @ErinMcPike.

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