Why Mitch Daniels Said No

By Erin McPike - May 22, 2011

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By Erin McPike

Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels received encouragement to pursue the presidency from all over the country, from tea party activists to Republican Party elites. But after months of deliberation, Daniels could not overcome the barrier that he warned supporters about from the start: family concerns stood in the way.

Daniels' unusual marital history was apparently the issue. He's only been married to one woman -- but twice, and the gap in that marriage in the 1990s was the sore spot. Cheri Daniels left Mitch when he was in private life in 1994 and moved to California with a doctor. The Danielses would later remarry, but the pain it caused the people involved, including their four daughters, was too much to bear.

A whisper campaign already making the rounds among political activists revealed how tough some of the scrutiny was going to be: What kind of first lady would leave her children at home for her husband to raise? Why did Mitch Daniels take her back?

Many Washington GOP strategists have said for months that that one issue would be too much for Daniels. In the end, it was -- according to Daniels' himself.

In a statement released to supporters late Saturday night, he said: "The counsel and encouragement I received from important citizens like you caused me to think very deeply about becoming a national candidate. In the end, I was able to resolve every competing consideration but one, but that, the interests and wishes of my family, is the most important consideration of all."

Daniels intimated as recently as last week that he was ready to run. The Indiana GOP staged a large event in Indianapolis 10 days ago that was in many ways a sales pitch to Cheri Daniels; with the well-choreographed event, the governor's supporters tried desperately to convince her that she could be comfortable in front of the national media.

But she told reporters afterward that the prospect of her marriage being discussed and dissected in the media was giving her pause.

She had reason to be nervous. RealClearPolitics was approached by the ex-wife of the doctor with whom Mrs. Daniels fled to California. The other couple was married at the time, and the woman said in a phone interview that the move "blindsided" her.

While she said she's over the breakup of her marriage, in an email she characterized Cheri Daniels as "vengeful."

The doctor's ex-wife continued: "What I will say is they remarried for political reasons. She didn't care what she did to her children or mine in 1994. And she doesn't care about what she does now. Look up 'narcissist.' I really question her character, and her motives."

The woman, who asked that her name not be used in order to protect her privacy, said she is a conservative and thought Daniels would make an excellent president. She even said she would vote for him. At the same time, she made it clear that she blames Cheri Daniels for breaking up her own family, and she speculated that the Danielses got back together at Mitch Daniels' urging because of his political ambitions -- such as his gubernatorial run.

She's not the only person who warned that details of the split are not the kind of biographical background a presidential candidate likes to deal with during a campaign roll-out. Daniels' own divorce lawyer has privately hinted to some Washington insiders that the particulars of the break-up were so messy that it would indeed be a problem if the two-term governor ran for president.

(The governor came to his wife's defense in a statement he released late Saturday to the Indianapolis Star. He said “the notion that Cheri ever did or would ‘abandon’ her girls or parental duty is the reverse of the truth and absurd to anyone who knows her, as I do, to be the best mother any daughter ever had.”

(He further explained that when he and Cheri parted, “the court agreed with my view that our daughters’ best interests would be served by their staying in Indiana. Cheri and I were granted joint custody. Within a short time, she purchased a residence just a few minutes from our house. Until we remarried, we shared custody fully, the girls dividing their time between the two houses.”)

Some supporters, including former John McCain aide Mark Salter, had urged Daniels to run regardless of his marital history, suggesting that it was virtually his duty to do so. In his statement to backers, Daniels acknowledged this sentiment, saying, "If I have disappointed you, I will always be sorry. If you feel that this was a non-courageous or unpatriotic decision, I understand and will not attempt to persuade you otherwise. I only hope that you will accept my sincerity in the judgment I reached."

Daniels' exit is surely welcome news to some of the other candidates, particularly Jon Huntsman and Mitt Romney -- who would have competed directly for voters and donors with him in New Hampshire -- and perhaps for Tim Pawlenty as well. In his famously blunt talk about the danger of rampant deficit spending, the Indiana governor had already staked out a place for himself in the field as kind of a fiscal moralist.

But it's not just a candidate's policy positions that are up for scrutiny in a presidential run, as Huntsman himself noted at an event with members of the Windham, N.H., GOP on Saturday. He said that politicians are crazy to run for president, and indicated that the process can break up families.

Whatever their private views are of Daniels' defection, however, the other candidates took the high road Sunday.

"Mitch Daniels will be missed in this presidential debate, but his message about the most immediate threat facing our nation -- the massive debt -- will not go unheard," Hunstman said in a statement. "Our country owes Gov. Daniels unending gratitude for his service, and the steadfast manner in which he's shined a light on the crippling debt that we will leave behind for future generations if it's not addressed."

Said Pawlenty: "Mitch Daniels is a friend of mine and one of the best governors in the country. While he may not be running, he is an intellectual powerhouse and will continue to play a leading role in the party's politics and the nation's policies. Mitch and I agree that America's out-of-control national debt is a threat to our nation's future, and that the next president must restore fiscal responsibility in Washington, D.C. Mary and I wish Cheri and Mitch all the best."

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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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