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Mitch Daniels State of the Union rebuttal makes GOP wonder: 'What if?'

Mitch Daniels was seen as a potential challenger to President Obama until he opted out of running last year. After his rebuttal of Obama's State of the Union address Tuesday, some GOP elites are openly longing for a Mitch Daniels candidacy.

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Today, those personal issues barely seem a liability, especially compared with Gingrich's marital record, says Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. The national party is returning to Daniels, he says, because it leaders suspect neither Romney nor Gingrich is capable of defeating Obama.

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“They’re in a mess. They don’t want Gingrich and they don’t like Romney. They pushed Daniels to begin with. I don’t know if anything’s changed,” says Mr. Sabato.

At this point in the primary season, Daniels would need to be drafted as a nominee, a process that would involve the front-runner, either Romney or Gingrich, stepping down. That is an unlikely scenario. 

Another potential roadblock is that Daniels, like Romney, will face accusations that he backtracks on issues, such as past statements he made about his disinterest in pursuing a so-called "right to work" law in Indiana. He now supports the legislation, designed to give workers the right to opt out of paying union dues – a move widely expected to undermine union organizing powers. It cleared the Indiana House late Wednesday.

Although Daniels is often described as a moderate for saying fiscal policy trumps social policy, his positions are “right in the mainstream of the conservative party,” says Marjorie Hershey, a political scientist at Indiana University in Bloomington.

Ms. Hershey doubts Daniels will change his mind about running for president. His wife’s concerns about family privacy are as just as salient now as they were last year, she says.

“A cabinet post might be an option for him or perhaps an ambassadorship.… However, I suspect he might be more at home on a corporate board and be done with all of this,” Hershey says.

Any discussion of Daniels’ future in this year’s presidential race is “hypothetical,” although it is certain “he’ll play a role in the conversation,” says Pete Seat, communications director for the Indiana Republican Party.

“The only reason that people are looking to him for guidance and for a vision is because of the results that we had in this state. We’ve taken those policies that the candidates are talking about and actually putting them into use,” Mr. Seat says.

One reason Daniels holds appeal for Republicans is an intangible one: He seems more authentic to voters than does the competition, says Seat. Daniels writes his own speeches, including Tuesday night’s rebuttal, and is known to be so close with the people in Indiana that he strikes up e-mail conversations with constituents and, when traveling, accepts invitations for overnight stays in their homes.

“He stays in the homes of Hoosiers when he travels around on the road. He’s sleeping in kids’ rooms with stuffed animals on the bed and Superman wallpaper," says Seat. "That’s how he keeps in contact with [his constituents]. He listens to people.” 

For State of the Union: Top five presidential orators of modern times 

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