Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels has a lot of catching up to do if he is to become a viable Republican presidential candidate, according to a straw poll taken over the weekend.
Daniels spoke to a dinnertime audience Friday at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference, where he stressed fiscal restraint while reiterating his call for a truce on “so-called social issues.”
He has said he won't announce a decision on a White House bid until after the Legislature wraps up in April and that his acceptance of the invitation to address the conference wasn’t an indication of how he's leaning.
Though his message received high marks from several political pundits, he earned just 4 percent of the straw poll vote. Texas congressman Ron Raul won with 30 percent of the vote, followed by former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who received 23 percent of the vote.
Still, Brian Vargus, a political science professor at IUPUI, said the poll results shouldn’t dissuade Daniels’ supporters. A total of 3,742 people, about a third of total CPAC attendees, voted in the poll.
“That’s not surprising with that group because he’s been kind of feuding with them over social issues,” Vargus said. “It’s been pretty well captured by highly social conservatives and many evangelicals, so they’re really concerned about those [social] issues that Mitch didn’t want to talk about.”
The slate of potential Republican presidential candidates remains crowded. Former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty all received votes—and finished in the poll ahead of Daniels.
Daniels, however, bested former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, businessman Herman Cain, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and South Dakota Sen. John Thune. Palin and Huckabee, projected to be among the GOP's top candidates if they decide to run, did not attend the conference.
“You can never underestimate him,” Vargus said of Daniels. “He’s a very shrewd guy.”
A year before the Iowa caucuses, the GOP base hasn't rallied around any one person and it doesn't seem all that enthusiastic about its options — even though more than a dozen Republicans, and counting, are considering candidacies.
So, what does the GOP base want?
Ask anyone who attended the gathering, and you'd hear something like this: a dynamic conservative with a backbone who can win.
“That's it. But there's nobody who meets that criteria,” added Bill Hemrick, a Nashville, Tenn., businessman who founded Tea Party HD, a conservative media company. He said the only two who even come close — Palin and Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann — “aren't electable.”
In short, no one is like Ronald Reagan.
Stated or not, there's a concern among GOP insiders that it may take someone of Reagan's caliber to beat President Obama, who remains personally popular despite stubbornly high unemployment and a series of divisive legislative accomplishments.
It says a lot about the likely field, for instance, that conservative pundits and right-leaning activists keep encouraging Republicans who have ruled out 2012 bids to get in the race, including former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.
Also telling: Billionaire reality show star Donald Trump and Texas Rep. Ron Paul, a once-failed presidential candidate who is leaving the door open to a reprisal, were the biggest hits at the conservative confab among Republicans trying out for the chance to take on Obama.
A veteran on the national stage, Romney, who lost in 2008 but is gearing up for a second bid, robustly delivered a general-election-like speech that was almost exclusively an indictment against Obama.
“If I decide to run for president, it won't take me two years to wake up to the job crisis threatening America,” Romney said, earning standing ovations and hearty applause from a capacity crowd.
He ignored what conservatives consider arguably his biggest black mark — the Massachusetts health care law that Obama partly modeled the national one after.
Pawlenty, who also is likely to announce a run soon, delivered a speech equal parts assailing Obama's policies and promoting his own positions. He drew cheers throughout from the standing-room-only audience, including when saying: “We need more common sense and less Obama nonsense.”
He also emphasized his efforts to keep taxes low, seeking to subtlety counter a blemish on his record that he didn't mention — backing increases on cigarettes.
A packed hotel ballroom also gave a warm reception to Thune, who is said to be less certain than others about running. The lone senator among the crop, Thune said he'd continue to be “on the front lines voting no” when Democrats try to push a liberal agenda; it's a pitch that could either serve as his argument for or against a candidacy.
Daniels, meanwhile, clearly entertained the dinnertime audience, with a policy-heavy address that was peppered with lighter moments as it drew on lessons learned in his state.
He didn't back down from his remark maligned by conservatives that the next president facing economic crisis “would have to call a truce on the so-called social issues.” Rather, he encouraged conservatives to broaden their reach, saying: “Purity in martyrdom is for suicide bombers.”