The GOP's Fresh 2012 Faces

Republican hopes for the 2010 midterms are soaring, but their 2012 presidential field remains murky. Mark McKinnon on why Midwesterners John Thune and Mitch Daniels may be the GOP’s best bets.

As they near the first turn toward November 2012, the GOP dark horses are picking up speed.

Early betting had focused largely on Republican front-runners Mitt Romney and Tim Pawlenty (both of whom would instantly be challenged by the favored filly, Sarah Palin, if she runs). But given the political environment we are in now, and likely will be for awhile, conventional wisdom should be tossed out the window.

So who is likely to gain traction and interest, and perhaps ultimately the nomination? The odds increasingly favor someone like Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels or South Dakota Senator John Thune.

Thune delivered a high-profile speech to GOP audience this week—the trumpet fanfare signaling that he is at the gate and ready to go.

Let’s face it, Romney is old news. Been there, done that and passed already. He’s going to have a hell of time explaining to the GOP base how his Massachusetts health care plan is different than Obama’s. And Pawlenty just isn’t getting any firm footing. His candidacy, at this stage, is not seen as viable. He tacked rightward out of the chute and made himself look like this cycle’s Mitt Romney flip-flopper, prostrating himself before the right wing of the party—even though it was his independent, reform-minded approach that made him an interesting prospect in the first place.

Enter Thune and Daniels. They are the fresh faces. The new GOP “It Boys” who, despite long odds, are starting to attract the smart money.

Benjy Sarlin: The New Jack Bauer Republicans Thune, a former congressman and a soft-spoken charmer with Gary Cooper’s good looks, just completed his first term in the Senate. He and his team have routinely, and predictably, dismissed any talk of 2012 aspirations because they didn’t want it to appear that he was jumping the gun before his Senate re-election this fall. Well, that strategy took a welcome hit when the Democrats decided Thune was so formidable that they didn’t even file a candidate to run against him. It’s the first time since 1914, when popular election of senators began, that the Democrats haven’t bothered to field a candidate in South Dakota.

Thune delivered the keynote address at the RNC's meeting of state chairs at the National Harbor in Maryland on Tuesday night—the trumpet fanfare signaling that he is at the gate and ready to go.

Thune won instant popularity among Republicans when he established himself as a giant-killer, knocking off sitting Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle in 2004. He grew up in Murdo, S.D., population 612, the son of a World War II aviator and war hero. Yes, the Great Plains state has a tiny electoral footprint, and the last major party presidential nominee from there—George McGovern—is the very definition of the wrong end of a presidential landslide. But Iowa is right next door, and he has strong appeal to evangelicals as a graduate of a California Bible college. He likes to focus on small companies and local business; he is clearly conservative but pragmatic. And stylistically, he is congenial, earnest and gracious. He can talk farming and football as easily as he can taxes and the deficit.

As a sitting senator, he’ll have to defend some difficult votes--like supporting the TARP fund (a reminder of why Obama was smart to launch his presidential bid before he had too many Senate votes to explain). But he’s got the means to do it; he’s banked $6.5 million for his re-election campaign, which he can now transfer into an account for a White House bid.

Another fresh face in the 2012 sweepstakes: Indiana Gov. Mitch “The Blade” Daniels, one of the rare sitting politicians in this country who has actually shown the fortitude to cut budgets. He trimmed $250 million from the Indiana budget, saved $190 million by renegotiating government contracts and the cutting the state’s rate of spending growth in half.

Daniels served as chief of staff to Senator Richard Lugar, was a senior advisor to President Ronald Reagan, was President George W. Bush’s budget director and has been elected twice governor, receiving more votes than anyone who has ever run for office in Indiana. He won 72 of 92 counties (Obama won 15), got 24 percent of the Democrat vote, 20 percent of African Americans, and won every age demographic.

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Daniels will be hard to match when it comes to substance, detail and record of accomplishment. He inherited a state hundreds of millions in debt and since taking office has balanced every budget. And he’s done it while enacting the largest tax cut in state history, ethics and telecom reform, and a fully-funded tax- and debt-free transportation plan.

Daniels’ blunt, plain-spoken and results-oriented approach will be viewed by the GOP faithful as strong assets against an incumbent president perceived as the opposite.

And Daniels does it his own way. He runs refreshingly positive campaigns absent the usual consultant-driven trappings and sound bites. Indiana is a heartland, bell-weather state that generally reflects presidential outcomes and broader electoral trends. So who better to run for president than an Indiana governor with a stratospheric 69 percent approval rating.

Maybe they’ll both fade in the backstretch, or perhaps even scratch before the race is run. But for now Daniels and Thune are the smart money in a field of also-rans.

Top 10 2012 GOP contenders:

1. Mitch Daniels 2. John Thune 3. Mitt Romney 4. Sarah Palin 5. Joe Scarborough 6. Tim Pawlenty 7. Haley Barbour 8. Mike Huckabee 9. Rick Perry 10. Rick Santorum

* Long shot: General David Petraeus. He flatly says he won’t run, but appearances in New Hampshire fuel Republican dreams of Ike redux.

* Governor Chris Christie bustin' up the joint in NJ

* Teaser: Newt Gingrich

As vice chairman of Public Strategies and president of Maverick Media, Mark McKinnon has helped meet strategic challenges for candidates, corporations and causes, including George W. Bush, John McCain, Governor Ann Richards, Charlie Wilson, Lance Armstrong, and Bono.