Was Mitch Daniels a Serious Contender?

Mitch Daniels will not run for president in 2012, and early polling showed he would have had a long way to go in introducing himself, as he appeared to be virtually unknown to Republican primary voters.

The latest major survey of the GOP race, conducted by Suffolk University May 10-17, placed Daniels in eighth:

Candidate     Percent
Mitt Romney        20
Sarah Palin	   12
Newt Gingrich       9
Rudy Giuliani       7
Ron Paul            5
Michele Bachmann    4
Herman Cain         4
Mitch Daniels       4
Tim Pawlenty        3
RIch Santorum       3

The next most recent major poll, conduced by CNN April 29 - May 1, also placed him eighth in a prospected field that included Mike Huckabee and Donald Trump, both of whom have since announced they're not running:

Candidate     Percent
Mike Huckabee      16
Donald Trump       14
Mitt Romney        13
Sarah Palin        11
Newt Gingrich      10
Ron Paul           10
Michele Bachmann    5
Mitch Daniels       5
Tim Pawlenty        3
Rick Santorum       2
Jon Huntsman        1

Despite his lack of national traction, Daniels remained a favorite of pundits on the left and right. Apoplectic about the state of the 2012 Republican field, Time's liberal columnist Joe Klein cast Daniels as a serious person amid a bunch of lunatics: "And so I plead, as an unflinching American patriot -- please Mitch Daniels, please Jeb Bush, please run. I may not agree with you on most things, but I respect you. And you seem to respect yourselves enough not to behave like public clowns."

As a potential 2012 candidate, Daniels was emblematic of a mismatch between the Beltway and the rest of the country, probably a symptom of our distant proximity from November 2012. Daniels was the candidate that insiders and close followers of presidential politics thought the Republican Party needed, or thought would be formidable once the 2012 campaign actually kicked into gear -- while nobody else outside of Indiana seemed to know who he was.

Slate's Dave Weigel calls Daniels an "uncharismatic" counterpoint to President Obama overestimated by pundits, but Daniels's low-key, dry demeanor could have been his strength. It was certainly what drew Klein to him.

In that regard, a Daniels 2012 campaign would have taken the temperature of the Republican Party. Since Obama was elected, some of the most prominent voices in the GOP have been bellicose and seething. Sarah Palin, Newt Gingrich, Rep. Michele Bachmann, and Donald Trump all criticize the president aggressively and, at times, controversially. The rest of the party has seemed to follow their lead. With Daniels gaining attention as a level-headed, competent-manager type, the wheel could have been turning away from that model.

Listening to Daniels make dry jokes while showing PowerPoint slides on education reform, as he did during a recent appearance at at the American Enterprise Institute three days after Osama bin Laden was killed, is sort of like taking a cool shower on a humid, 98-degree day. It's strange that a presidential candidate would stand out with a flat, non-bombastic presence, but maybe Daniels would have.

We'll never know. Daniels could have raised a ton of money and used his Midwestern roots to make a strong showing in Iowa, then go on to vie seriously for the party nomination. It's too early to know what can and cannot happen. But now that he's not running, Daniels's non-campaign will probably be remembered as a disappointment to Republican pundits more than anyone else.

Drop-down image credit: Reuters

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Chris Good is a political reporter for ABC News. He was previously an associate editor at The Atlantic and a reporter for The Hill.

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