WASHINGTON -- Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels (R) rolled his eyes Saturday when asked about the press coverage of Mitt Romney's speech at Ford Field in Detroit on Friday, which focused on the fact that he spoke in the largely empty stadium rather than on the substance of his tax reform plan.
"It doesn't mean he was wrong to talk about the right subject. Horse race coverage is a phenomenon we all have agreed, most people have agreed, is not optimal," Daniels said.
But in an interview with The Huffington Post, Daniels -- who has been been among several Republicans leading the charge for their party to put decreasing the national debt and entitlement spending at the top of its agenda -- praised the former Massachusetts governor for his proposal to lower individual tax rates and his ideas on Medicare and Social Security.
"I didn't pore over the details but Romney's tax reform proposals head in the right direction," Daniels said. "He's proposed now the kind of changes to Social Security and Medicare that are going to be necessary sooner or later."
Romney, who released a 160-page jobs plan in September that said he would "maintain marginal rates at current levels," moved to the right on tax policy this week. He said if elected he would reduce individual income taxes at all levels by 20 percent, moving the marginal rates for the highest bracket from 35 to 28 percent and the lowest bracket from 10 percent to 8 percent. Americans for Tax Reform called it "a big improvement over the first version of the plan."
Romney was the only candidate mentioned by Daniels, who said that he thinks the issues that matter most to him -- the debt and entitlements -- will return to the forefront later this year during the general election campaign. This flies in the face of many political observers, who believe that both Romney and former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) have enough weak spots in their biography and their background that will detract attention from a discussion of the issues.
For Romney, it's his wealth, and his inability to talk articulately about it. For Santorum, it's the long list of provocative statements he's made on a whole host of social and religious issues. The theory is that President Barack Obama and his formidable political machine will be able to marginalize either candidate by focusing much of the attention in the race on their foibles, despite Republicans' efforts to make their case that the president has not done enough to confront the nation's biggest challenges.
These weaknesses have prompted a new round of speculation over the past month that the GOP needs a fresh candidate to enter the race. Daniels has been one of the most prominent politicians mentioned, but he again dismissed such talk on Saturday, saying he was 100 percent closing the door to a presidential run.
The other challenge for conservatives in addressing the debt and entitlements is that even the Republican base has been less than enthusiastic about the prospect of overhauling Medicare and Social Security. As a result, even the Republican lawmakers who have been most vocal about the issue, such as Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), who released a budget proposal last year that included major entitlement reforms, have moderated their stances (though Ryan himself has not abandoned his basic ideas). Soon after Ryan released his proposal, many Republicans stopped talking about entitlements all together.
But Daniels said he still thinks talk of debt, entitlements and ways to pursue economic growth will dominate the election.
"Somebody asked this question to me the other day: 'How would the debate focus more on the economy and debt?' I said it won't have to. Circumstances will focus everybody's attention on that," Daniels said. "I believe that the economy's going to continue to slip sideways."
"There's no candy-coating the situation. We've got the lowest percentage of people working in 30 or 40 years ... and there are clouds all over the place: the European situation, oil prices, et cetera," he said.
Daniels was modestly enthusiastic about Romney's approach to these issues, and said Republicans can run against Obama on them.
"I think on the Republican side it's moving in the right direction. Romney's latest statements begin to really get at these issues: how do you grow the economy faster? And how do you begin to discipline the entitlement spending that's going to wreck the whole show if we don't," Daniels said. "Frankly, the president has gone totally AWOL in a way that I think makes this whole subject more available and inviting to Republicans."