By Dick Morris on May 9, 2011

With only 23% hard name recognition (16-7 favorable), why would Mitch Daniels be a significant candidate with so many better known men and women in the potential field?

There is, of course, his splendid record as governor of Indiana. He has done everything a governor could do. He took a deficit and produced a surplus with no tax increase (although he flirted with one early in his term but dropped the idea). His education choice legislation is the most advanced in the nation and will offer all Indiana children the ability to use state funds to go to the school of their choice after it phases in over three years. He has restricted collective bargaining with public workers a la Wisconsin and sharply limited teacher tenure. His landmark legislation replaces teacher pay based on seniority and advanced degrees with compensation determined by merit and student test scores. It allows school boards, in the event of layoffs, to waive the “last hired first fired” rule in favor of merit as criterion for dismissal. He allows state workers to enroll in Health Savings Accounts with an annual state grant of $2700 for all health care costs and lets the worker keep any unspent portion of the funds. Any medical spending over the flat fee gets a sliding scale of state assistance. Almost two-thirds of state workers have gotten money back at the end of the year. He blocked state funding of Planned Parenthood.

With a record like that, he is probably the most successful conservative governor in America today.

But it is the potential vacuum in the presidential race that generates the most interest in his candidacy. With both Huckabee and Palin weighing whether or not to run, there is a possible opening on the right side of the field.

Mitt Romney, the early front runner, is going to face-off with Donald Trump as the businessman’s candidate. Within the current primary electorate, Romney has the decided edge. But Trump, like Obama and Perot before him, can expand the size of the electorate by attracting independents into the process so one cannot count him out.

But if neither Huckabee nor Palin run, there is room on the right. Newt Gingrich has yet so set the world on fire. He draws a 15% vote share from men but only 7% from women and more than a third of the Republican Primary electorate says he has too much baggage to be elected. All agree that he would be phenomenal in a debate against Obama but he’s got a lot to overcome to get there.

Michele Bachmann is a real comer in the field. As the only candidate currently serving in Congress, she is on the playing field. Her Tea Party-based advocacy of spending cuts and no tax increases wins her supporters, especially as she dissents from the Boehner-Cantor compromises with the Administration. Her blunt, outspoken style attracts a lot of support and she could do much to fill the void on the right. But she is relatively inexperienced and some worry about the very outspokenness that makes her so attractive.

So, if Huckabee and Palin stay out, there is a lot of room for Mitch.

Daniels must take care to avoid Fred Thompson disease. You have to really, really want to be president to run. Does he have the fire in the belly? Certainly Daniels is the only candidate to rival Gingrich in grey cells, but does he really want it badly enough?

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