U.S. Rep. Mike Pence, a former talk show host and one of the more outspoken conservatives in Congress, said Thursday he won't seek the Republican nomination for president in 2012 because he wants to focus on issues "closer to home" — a message some supporters are interpreting as his clearest sign yet that he'll run for Indiana governor.
While Pence stopped short of announcing his candidacy for the state's top job, many in political circles have assumed he is mulling it since he stepped down last year from his House leadership position. The 51-year-old Pence made multiple trips to states that host early presidential primary contests, fueling some speculation he might seek the White House instead.
"We have been especially humbled by the confidence and support of those who believe we should pursue the presidency, but after much deliberation and prayer, we believe our calling is closer to home," Pence said in a letter to supporters. "In the choice between seeking national office and serving Indiana in some capacity, we choose Indiana. We will not seek the Republican nomination for president in 2012."
Pence said he would make a decision about his future later, and would be traveling across the state in the months ahead to "learn about how Hoosiers think we might best contribute in the years ahead." Pence has a pair of public events scheduled for Friday — a town hall meeting in Pendleton and a visit to a high school in Muncie.
"I am convinced he is now going to run for governor," said Mike McDaniel, a former state Republican chairman.
Former Republican state Rep. Jackie Walorski, a Tea Party favorite who narrowly lost her race last year against Democratic Rep. Joe Donnelly in northern Indiana, said she was excited by the prospect of Pence running for governor.
"I think he's the clear frontrunner and I think the race is his if he chooses to accept it," Walorski said. "I think he'd clear the field."
Indiana Republican Party Chairman Eric Holcomb said in a statement that Indiana is fortunate to be the home of GOP "rising stars" like Pence.
"Mike's been a strong voice in Congress and has always proposed common sense approaches to the problems that face our nation," he said. "He will no doubt continue to play a vital role in that conversation as he decides what future service he might offer his state."
The congressman's future has been the subject of speculation since he resigned the No. 3 GOP House leadership slot after winning sixth term in November.
Pence, who often describes himself as "a Christian, a conservative, and a Republican, in that order," is one of the party's most vocal critics of President Barack Obama. In September, Pence finished first in a straw poll of social conservatives who were asked to name the person they'd like to see as the 2012 nominee for president.
But if Pence had entered the presidential contest, he would have faced an uphill climb. Few Americans have heard of him, and better known potential Republican candidates such as former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, the vice presidential nominee in 2008, already have organized fundraising operations.
The field for Indiana governor is wide open, and Pence is the most prominent Republican discussed as a candidate to replace GOP Gov. Mitch Daniels, who can't run for a third term and also is considering whether to enter the 2012 presidential campaign. On the Democratic side, well-known former Sen. Evan Bayh decided not to run, but potential gubernatorial candidates include Rep. Joe Donnelly, Evansville Mayor Jonathan Weinzapfel and former Rep. Brad Ellsworth, who was the unsuccessful Democratic nominee last year for Bayh's Senate seat.
Pence could get a jump start on the gubernatorial campaign by traveling the state in coming weeks, and he is slated to be the headline speaker at at least nine county Republican dinners across the state in February, March and April. He campaigned for numerous congressional and legislative candidates around Indiana last fall, while also traveling to other states, including Florida, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Georgia, Ohio and Maryland.
McDaniel said Pence may be waiting to announce a decision on a gubernatorial bid out of respect for Daniels, who said in November that he wouldn't decide about a presidential run until after the legislative session and urged politicians thinking about running for office in 2012 to focus on current duties. A new state law prohibits any political fundraising by candidates for statewide office until the session ends in late April, though Pence could continue to raise money in his U.S. House campaign fund and later transfer that to campaign for governor if he decides to run.
Walorski said she expected Pence to abide by Daniels' wishes.
"He and I are aligned virtually down the line on conservative and fiscal issues. I'm excited for any door Mike walks through," she said. "Obviously it'd be great for the state of Indiana."
Pence is from Columbus and was an attorney before running unsuccessfully for Congress against Democrat Phil Sharp in 1988 and 1990. He then was president of the Indiana Policy Review think tank and a radio talk show host before running for Congress again in 2000 after Republican David McIntosh gave up the seat for an unsuccessful run for governor.