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Mitch Daniels, weighing run, considers cost to privacy

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INDIANAPOLIS » Cheri Daniels has made no secret of her distaste for politics. She did not campaign for her husband, Mitch Daniels, during two races for governor. She did not fully move into the governor’s mansion after his election. She has never delivered a political speech.

But as leading Republicans step up their efforts to urge Mitch Daniels to run for president, the attention has suddenly turned to his wife, who makes her debut here Thursday when she delivers a keynote address at the spring dinner of the Indiana Republican Party.

Her willingness to take on a public role has increased the speculation about his intentions. But it has also come at the price of increased scrutiny on the couple’s private life, something Daniels had seemed to have on his mind for months as he made clear that family considerations would weigh heavily on his decision.

While much is known about Daniels in Republican circles, where he is viewed as a fiscally focused, budget-cutting, pragmatic-thinking conservative, there is one period of his life that has remained almost entirely private — until now.

He has been married twice — to the same wife.

Should he run, that chapter in his life would no doubt be picked over in public and become a part of the personal narrative that springs up around any serious candidate: in this case a three-year gap in their marriage in the 1990s, when she filed for divorce, moved to California with a new husband and left Daniels to raise their four daughters, then age 8 to 14. She later returned and remarried him.

He has discussed it only once publicly, telling The Indianapolis Star in 2004: “If you like happy endings, you’ll love our story. Love and the love of children overcame any problems.”

Their story is in some ways an antidote to a string of philandering male politicians. But it is a topic that Mitch Daniels does not relish delving into, several friends said. And it has been one of the factors as he weighs whether to run for president, where scrutiny begins and privacy ends whether or not one gets the job.

The marriages of many political figures break up after they leave office — the latest example coming this week with the announcement of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Maria Shriver’s separation — but the Daniels case provides a different look at the intersection of public and private lives.

The deliberations about whether Daniels will join the Republican presidential race have elevated from whispers to headlines in recent weeks as contributors, activists and party leaders have openly lamented the slate of candidates.

Even while acknowledging that his wife’s appearance at the party gathering Thursday would lead to speculation about his political intentions, he sought to play down its significance.

“Cheri hasn’t even attended one of these, let alone appeared at one of them,” he said in a recent interview. He added, “Tea leaves started getting read — and I get it.”

Daniels has declined to say what his wife thinks about the idea of his running for president.

“I’m not going to speak either to that or for her, and it’s kind of between us,” he told reporters here the other day. “But I’ll just say, I love her and I love the family we’ve got, and you don’t lightly trifle with that.”

A group of top Republican contributors met with Daniels in Indianapolis this week. Even in a private session, one participant said, he did not disclose whether his family had signed off on the notion of a presidential campaign. He argued that he believes he could beat President Barack Obama, but did not leave them with a strong sense that he is intent on running.

But the timing of the speech by Cheri Daniels, and the fact that she agreed to make her debut before a crowd of more than 1,000 people and a live national cable television audience, has intensified the speculation about a presidential run.

A springtime of debate about whether he will jump in has developed into the talk of the town, with the front-page of The Indianapolis Star on Wednesday asking, “Is Cheri Daniels ready to take the plunge?”

“This is the most anticipated political address by a first lady in Indiana history,” said Brian Howey, editor of the influential newsletter Howey Politics Indiana. “I suspect it’s going to be more about love and life, food drives and elementary school literacy programs than 21st century presidential politics, but in the mystery of Mitch and his possible presidential aspirations, it will be another piece in a very intricate puzzle.”

Indeed, Republicans here do not expect Cheri Daniels to talk directly about the presidential ambitions of her husband. (Except, one friend said, to poke a bit of fun at him.) She also has never publicly discussed their divorce and is not expected to suddenly do so in the not-so-intimate setting of a hotel ballroom filled with political activists.

In conversations here this week, several Republicans who are supportive of a presidential bid by Daniels, said they hoped his wife saw the outpouring of enthusiasm for his candidacy at the dinner and that becomes a factor in their decision. Family permission for Daniels does not pave the way to the White House — or even ensure that he would win the party’s nomination — but it is a first step that Republicans are watching for as a signal of his intentions.

As the first lady of Indiana, Cheri Daniels, 61, has promoted literacy, health and fitness programs. She also won a third-place ribbon in a cow-milking contest last August at the Indiana State Fair and threw out the first pitch at the opening game of the Indianapolis Indians’ in April. (A longtime baseball fan, she is the granddaughter of Billy Herman, a Hall of Fame second baseman who played for the Chicago Cubs and the Brooklyn Dodgers.)

Daniels said he will decide whether to join the presidential race in the coming weeks.

If he does run, Republicans here believe that she will not dramatically change the distant role that she has played in his previous campaigns or during his time at the White House as political director to Ronald Reagan and budget director to George W. Bush. She explained her reasoning in a 2005 interview with Indianapolis Woman magazine, saying: “they did not ask me to sit in on the job interview.”

“I saw the campaign the same way,” she said, “as an interview.”

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