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Pence slowly putting his stamp on Indiana, GOP

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Performance metrics and "key priority items" sound like dry management talk, but they provide insight into how Gov. Mike Pence is slowly taking the reins of the state and crafting Indiana's government with his own priorities.

Pence as governor has lacked much of the definition former Gov. Mitch Daniels established over eight years in office — and the image Pence crafted for himself as a social crusader over a dozen years in Congress hasn't stuck around.

But his agenda is slowly emerging, in ways both obvious and oblique.

Budget Director Chris Atkins delivered new priorities last week during a "lull" around the Statehouse, focusing on infant mortality, youth smoking and obesity, and a slew of "jobs" metrics, including employment among Indiana's war veterans.

In some cases, Atkins pointed out they are how Pence will determine whether state government is doing its job.

"They are the chief means by which the governor will hold agencies accountable," Atkins said at a Statehouse briefing, where he added Pence will award agencies with more money depending on how they perform.

The Pence team is done dancing with the Legislature, for the most part, until next session. And 2013 is a rare off-year, without statewide elections to draw the young administration out across the state.

In many ways, Pence has been hampered by a political reality he has acknowledged in catchphrases like "good to great," inherently recognizing Daniels' continuing popularity. And Pence has just had a slow start grasping state government. Like Daniels did in 2005, Pence came into the Statehouse "cold" following a stint in Washington.

The new governor's first-term legislative agenda slowly trickled out over the four-month session, with some confusion over which items were his, with the stark exception of the income tax cut. Pence signed a series of executive orders on his first day in office, placing a hold on new state regulations and establishing "family impact statements" across state agencies.

With the exception of two embattled agencies where Pence sought to implement his own reforms — the Indiana Economic Development Corporation and the Department of Child Services — Pence leaned heavily on Daniels' agency heads to fill out his team.

Rob Wynkoop recently left the Department of Administration and Mike Cline left the Indiana Department of Transportation to take jobs with Daniels at Purdue University.

Down the street from the Statehouse at the Indiana Republican Party headquarters, another group of Daniels' allies split after helping Pence settle in. Party Chairman Eric Holcomb announced he would be leaving to run U.S. Sen. Dan Coats' state office and former Lt. Gov. Becky Skillman announced she was stepping down as a national committee member to focus on her new job as an economic development director in southwest Indiana.

"While there is never a perfect time for these types of transitions, I believe this year, being an off-election year, is the best time," Holcomb said in a statement announcing his departure. "In addition, and most importantly, these changes will give Governor Mike Pence a wonderful opportunity to charge forward and write our party's next chapter of success."

It was a key reminder that Daniels no longer presides in Indianapolis. Both Pence and Daniels are prominent Republicans with political footprints stretching well beyond the state borders, but the current governor has walked a fine line trying to define himself as a conservative Republican who's distinct from Daniels.

He now has another chance to place his stamp on the state with the coming pick of a new party chairman. That's expected soon, well before Holcomb's July 9 departure.

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