WASHINGTON – Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels said it is a “happy surprise” that the 2012 Republican presidential primary is taking so long to get going, and said he is still debating whether to become a candidate for his party’s nomination himself.
“We won’t take long,” Daniels told reporters after a speech at the American Enterprise Institute, referring to the decision he and his wife, Cheri Daniels, are mulling about whether to jump into a campaign. But he said it still could be “weeks” until he announces anything, and a top aide told The Huffington Post that Daniels may wait until the end of May.
“I think it’s a happy surprise,” the governor said of the primary still being in its early stages, so much so that only five out of roughly 15 potential candidates will participate in the first debate on Thursday.
Daniels, who spoke and answered questions about Indiana's education system for about 50 minutes at the conservative think tank Wednesday, essentially sidestepped a question asking whether his wife’s reservations about a presidential run are the primary factor holding him back.
“Family considerations [are] always the most important thing in anything,” he said as he stepped onto an elevator to escape a large scrum of reporters who had attended the appearance seeking clues about his intentions.
Much of the Daniels’ hesitation reportedly stems from the fact that a campaign would mean an inevitable revisiting of their divorce in 1994, when Cheri left her husband and their four daughters to marry another man. The two remarried three years later.
Republican sources have said they think this is the main reason for Daniels' delay in deciding whether to run, though much of that remains speculation since the Indiana governor is known for keeping close counsel.
When asked during the question and answer portion of his remarks why it wasn’t too late for someone who is not a celebrity or a billionaire to jump into the race already, in a reference to business mogul Donald Trump and former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, Daniels rolled his eyes. Leaning against the podium with his trademark half-smile, he replied, “As a man said, ‘When I considers my opportunities I marvels at my self-restraint.’”
“People far more sage than I … are very surprised that on May 4 it’s not already far too late, but for whatever reason it’s not,” he added. “I consider that, from the vantage point of the public, a blessing. Unless you’re a political professional or running a bed and breakfast in New Hampshire, it’s a darn good thing that we’ll have a nomination campaign measured in months and not in years.”
Daniels said that even if it meant the prospect of a presidential run became impossible, he was fully prepared to extend Indiana's legislative session beyond its April 29 deadline if it had been required to get the legislature to vote on key bills.
“I would have done it,” he said, though he admitted that he “really thought that it might become too late, somewhere along the line" to join the other 2012 hopefuls. "If it had, it had,” he said.
During his appearance, Daniels remained relaxed and typically modest, cracking jokes at his own expense and showing that what he lacks in charisma or charm, he makes up for by maintaining a unique presence and some command of a room.
“He is self-effacing, but he just shepherded through the most comprehensive set of education reforms in the country,” said Christine Matthews, a Republican pollster who attended the speech and told HuffPost that if Daniels runs, she will support him.
The education portion of Daniels’ remarks contained a few moments that made him sound more like a moderate Republican trying to score crossover points with independents than a rock-ribbed conservative. Emphasizing his crusade against the status quo education establishment, for example, he highlighted an issue with cache among members of both parties.
Daniels talked at length about his plan to give vouchers to lower-income students to attend private schools, passed this year, but pointed out that students will have to attend public schools for at least one year before becoming eligible.
Public schools “get the first shot” at students, he said. “If the public school delivers and succeeds, no one will seek to exercise this choice."
“But neither will we incarcerate any family’s kids in a school that they don’t believe is working, having tried it for at least one full year,” he added. “It is certainly, from a social justice aspect, the right thing to do, to give the same range of possibilities to every family, regardless of means.”
Daniels also said that while the Department of Education is too big, he believes it should exist and that there is some need for it. Such statements contrast the ideals of Tea Party lawmakers such as Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), who have proposed nearly eliminating the department.
“I believe in national standards. I believe we can all choose our best way to get there,” Daniels said.
He also praised President Barack Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan for some of their reforms, saying they have “had the courage to in many cases irritate their allies,” the teachers unions.
Rick Muir, the president of the Indiana Federation of Teachers, called Daniels’ talk of education reform “ludicrous.”
“His agenda has nothing to do with children and education. His agenda was to be punitive to educators and teacher unions,” Muir said, citing that Daniels’ legislation does not require charter school teachers to hold valid teachers licenses and that his voucher system will cost $60 million over two years.
During his speech, Daniels said that “advocates for education reform become accustomed to being misrepresented,” and showed slides of signs made by those who disagree with his reforms portraying his likeness as Hitler.
Daniels got in only one crack at Obama, noting that Hubert Schafly, who helped invent the teleprompter, died last week.
“I know President Obama is grief-stricken,” Daniels said.