Mitch Daniels's decision not to run is a shame. He is an impressive man and had a unique combination of qualities among the possible Republican contenders for 2012: a successful and strikingly popular governor, with federal and private-sector executive experience, a (mostly deserved) reputation for straight talk on fiscal issues, strong conservative credentials, and yet at the same time (having called for a "truce" on social issues) enhanced appeal to moderates. He was a plausible contender, and the Republican nomination would have been a much more interesting contest with him in it. So would the presidential race, had he won the nomination--which was far from assured, obviously. He could have given Obama a run for his $1 billion.
For the moment, the impression that the GOP field is second-rate will be strengthened. Romney is a formidable money-raiser but hobbled, so far as the GOP primary electorate is concerned, by health care. Pawlenty, who says he will announce tomorrow, is still a mostly unknown quantity in the country at large, with close-to-zero name recognition and single-digit poll ratings. In one way, Daniels's departure makes more room for Jon Huntsman. Huntsman is impressive too, with better looks and added charisma compared with Daniels, but he was seen as too moderate for the GOP even before he took his job (ambassador to China) with the Obama administration. That will take some living down in Iowa. One can imagine Huntsman doing well against Obama, but he has to get the nomination first.
That was really the point of Daniels: one could see him getting the nomination, and then appealing to the wide center in the general election.
So Daniels, Barbour, Huckabee are out. Trump was a joke from the start. Gingrich self-immolated on day one. Yet the exits do surprisingly little to clarify the situation. Tea Party candidates--Michelle Bachman and possibly Sarah Palin, who is telling the nation she has fire in her belly--could still be a big factor in the nomination race. The new Republican party looks capable of choosing a completely unelectable candidate and congratulating itself for doing so. Failing that, it could fight itself to a standstill and end up backing by default a candidate it does not really want. Meanwhile, the traditional GOP establishment, which had invested a lot of hope in Daniels, and in recent days had allowed itself to think he would run, may cast around for somebody else to support. Might Chris Christie reconsider? Jeb Bush, anyone?