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.
Daniels, a political strategist who served in the Reagan White House, called many of the shots in his two gubernatorial races. The last made a huge impression in the GOP: He was the rare Republican governor who won re-election in a state that Obama carried in 2008.
Since taking office in 2005, Daniels has logged victories central to fiscal conservatives' goals: He scrapped the requirement that state employees belong to unions, privatized the state's toll road, turned budget deficits into surpluses and expanded health care to more than 130,000 residents with tax hikes on cigarettes.
As he enters the last two years of his term, he's working to expand his national profile.
Daniels plans to address the conservative American Enterprise Institute next week to talk about his education agenda. If lawmakers don't weaken his plan in the final days, it will include the nation's broadest school voucher program allowing middle- and low-income families to use taxpayer funds to send students to private schools.
His wife, Cheri, is to headline an Indiana GOP fundraiser later in May, a notable shift for a spouse more likely to show up at county fairs unannounced than to take the podium in front of thousands of political activists.
And Daniels is to release a policy book this fall called "Keeping the Republic: Limited Government, Unlimited Citizens."
In Iowa, some of the state's most prominent and potent operatives are eagerly awaiting Daniels' decision now that Barbour isn't in the race emphasizing solving the federal government's fiscal problems.
"I think there's an opening to take up that message," Branstad said.
Des Moines Republican Doug Gross, long involved in party politics in the state, has spoken highly of Daniels, too, and says there's a place in the field for a budget hawk.
Even so, Daniels' suggestion that social issues take a backseat to economic and fiscal concerns would cause him headaches in Iowa. Branstad said evangelical conservatives — who account for roughly half of Iowa Republicans — would hold Daniels to account even though he has a record as a loyal social conservative.
Still, with Barbour out of the race, Daniels could benefit from donors and operatives who no longer have a candidate to back.
His advisers privately acknowledge that he hasn't done the legwork other Republicans weighing bids have done, and that could put him at a disadvantage.Comment on this story
Most GOP presidential prospects have reached out to Iowans — and other voters in early primary states — over the past year to gauge interest. But Daniels has avoided it and declined several invitations to speak in the states.
He also spent his political capital last year working to bolster the GOP ranks in his state Legislature, rather than aiding Iowa, New Hampshire or South Carolina Republicans, as some 2012 prospects did with their political action committees.
This week as the Barbour decision roiled political circles, Daniels' advisers emphasized that the governor wanted to keep focused on the Statehouse before looking seriously at his own future. They said he worried that even a momentary break could spell havoc for his agenda as governor — and, perhaps, his platform should he run for president.
Thomas Beaumont reported from Des Moines, Iowa.