INDIANAPOLIS — Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, nearing an announcement on whether to run for president, is spending the final week of his state's legislative session pushing for the final pieces of a record that would be ready-made for a Republican campaign: a balanced budget, tax refunds and a school voucher program.
This week's unexpected decision by Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, a Daniels friend, to forgo a presidential candidacy seemingly makes it more likely the Midwestern governor will seek the GOP nomination. Party insiders close to the two men say Barbour and Daniels, whose early careers intersected as aides to President Ronald Reagan, had indicated privately they would not both seek the 2012 nomination.
But Daniels, 62, is not rushing to join the field.
The governor, who typically keeps his own counsel, is staying mum about his plans. Even his closest advisers here say they still aren't sure what he will do.
He's kept open the possibility of a run for months, if only to make sure his top issue — enormous deficits and the national debt — was a serious part of the debate. And he is keeping his pledge to tend to business in Indiana before making an announcement or taking even the most preliminary steps toward a national run.
"He has said he's focused on the legislative session and he would make a decision when that's over," Jane Jankowski, the governor's spokeswoman, said Tuesday. The Legislature is slated to adjourn by the end of this week.
Daniels is the first to acknowledge he's done little to lay the groundwork for a campaign, and his lack of planning has been striking to some who would support him if he ran.
"I don't know if he's got the fire in the belly, drive and desire to run for president of the United States. I haven't seen it," Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad told The Associated Press. "At this point, I don't think it's likely that he'll run."
Branstad, Republican governor of the first state to hold a leadoff nominating contest, got that impression last week when Daniels called to discuss education policy but made no mention of a presidential campaign.
No "absolute fire in the belly" was the reason Barbour gave for bowing out of the race.
Barbour's announcement surprised many Republicans who had expected the former Republican National Committee chairman to mount a serious campaign based on fiscal issues and the economy. His decision could open the door for Daniels, a hero to the anti-deficit wing of the party, a former pharmaceutical executive, and a George W. Bush budget director. He can check many of the same boxes that many Republicans are seeking: private sector background, executive experience running a state or federal department, balanced state budget.
He would enter a race that lacks a clear front runner. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney is trying to position himself as the fiscal conservative in the race despite overseeing a health care overhaul in Massachusetts that is strikingly similar to the President Barack Obama's massive health overhaul that many Republicans loathe. Others, including former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty and former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, are struggling to gain attention.
As a candidate, Daniels could trumpet his success in balancing the state budget, weakening teachers' unions and setting in motion a substantial education agenda — all this year.
"He's going to have some victories at the Statehouse," said Indiana Democratic Party Chairman Dan Parker. "He's got the majorities."
Republicans hold 60 seats of the 100-member state House and 33 of the Senate's 50 seats.
"For anyone who underestimates Mitch, they do so at their own risk," Parker said.
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