New York has nothing on Indiana when it comes to the very early 2012 presidential sweepstakes.
The Empire State has its two aspirants—former Gov. George Pataki and famous rich guy Donald Trump—but so does the Hoosier state: Gov. Mitch Daniels and U.S. Rep. Mike Pence, both of whom have made it to the national pundits’ coveted “being mentioned” list of Republican candidates for president.
It is not so unusual for a state to have more than one prospective candidate two years before the election. Only once—after Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated, leaving Minnesotans Hubert Humphrey and Eugene McCarthy to battle out the 1968 Democratic nomination—did it go down to the wire, said Ray Scheele, co-director of the Bowen Center for Public Affairs at Ball State University.
What may be more remarkable about the possibility of these two Hoosiers becoming presidential candidates is that, through them, Indiana represents something of a microcosm of the national Republican Party and its philosophical wings.
“The contrast between Mike Pence and Mitch Daniels is substantial,” said Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics. “Daniels is conservative on social issues, but that is not his focus. His focus is fiscal issues. Pence is a fiscal conservative, but he is much more identified with social issues. So they do represent two vital wings of the GOP.”
Daniels, who has said Republicans should call a truce on social issues so the country can focus on fiscal ones, insists he has not decided to run. Instead, he is merely keeping the door cracked open in case his services are needed—that is, if no other worthy challenger to President Barack Obama’s expected re-election bid rises to the occasion. But several experts say his actions speak louder than words.
“I myself certainly do not believe [Daniels] when he suggests that he is leaning toward not running, unless his reading is that he really doesn’t have a chance to win,” said Bruce Stinebrickner, a political science professor at DePauw University. “I think the chances that he will run are very strong, perhaps 80 [percent] to 90 percent.”
David Hadley, political science chairman at Wabash College, found it “a little disingenuous” when Daniels said he invited Republican bigwigs and money men for group discussions on issues so he did not have to meet separately with all those clambering to see him.
“I think more than that was happening,” Hadley said. “It was a bunch of people who could throw in a couple million dollars here and there.”
Pence likewise has not been so gauche as to flat out announce a candidacy, but he traveled Oct. 2 to Iowa—site of the first primary-season caucuses—and got national attention in September when he came in first among prospective Republican candidates in a straw vote at the Values Voter Summit.
He also is airing a television ad—which has made its way to national exposure on YouTube—that may leave the uninitiated confused as to which office he seeks. Though he is running against Democrat Barry Welsh for a sixth House term, only in the last of 60 seconds is the word “congressman” on screen. Before that, Pence speaks about leadership and intones: “This is the moment. Now is the time. I know we will reclaim our liberty because every time freedom gets an up or down vote in the heartland of America, freedom always wins.”
The ad, Hadley said, “could do triple duty for him. He doesn’t have to worry about winning the congressional election, but this is getting his name out there, reminding people that he’s running. It could be aimed at a presidential audience. It also could be, with all those cornfields, an Indiana audience for the governor’s race.”
Several experts concur that both Daniels and Pence may be viable candidates. “What distinguishes Mitch Daniels and Mike Pence from their counterparts on the ‘wings’ of the party is how calm and collected and credible they both usually are,” DePauw’s Stinebrickner said.
Observers also agreed that—as IUPUI associate professor Ramla Bandele put it—though “people think he will not be taken seriously because he is so small in stature … Daniels is taken more seriously” for a variety of reasons.
First, he has experience in both the executive and legislative branches, as well as in government and politics. In addition to his own electoral victories and service in the governor’s office, Daniels held high-ranking positions in the Reagan and George W. Bush administrations. And as a top Senate aide to U.S. Sen. Richard Lugar, he ran the Republican senatorial campaign committee when Lugar headed it.
Second, the experts noted, only one sitting member of the House of Representatives—James Garfield—has ever been elected president. Rising from governor to president is much more common.
Third, the field of social conservatives, with which Pence is most associated, is likely to be large if Obama appears vulnerable, Scheele said. Daniels, known for his business sensibilities and fiscal conservatism, is unlikely to have as much competition for the hearts of voters to whom such attributes are appealing.
That means the vote in early primaries may be more split on the Pence side of the spectrum, less so on the Daniels side. Even more important, said Hadley, is that dollars may be scarcer for Pence than for Daniels.
“My sense is Mitch Daniels has access to large contributors—the Bush Texas connection, the people who came up with big bucks to support Bush when he first ran and businessmen with that fiscal conservativism,” Hadley said. “Mike Pence has access to the Christian Right, family-values people, who are not necessarily going to be large contributors but there are going to be lots of them.”
While Stinebrickner said “it’s not inconceivable” that “the final choice [for the Republican nominee] would be between the two Hoosiers,” the other experts interviewed for this story thought that unlikely. Indeed, although noting that “both are credible enough so that they will be considered seriously if they run,” Sabato said “the suspicion is that both will choose not to pull the trigger in the end and will end up running for something else or not running at all.”
State law prohibits Daniels from running for a third consecutive term as governor. Pence, the third-ranking Republican in the House, would be more prominent if Republicans win the House majority in November and is thought by some to be in line to someday be speaker.