POLITICS:

Low-key governor becomes leading GOP voice on climate

Correction appended.

Since their drubbing in last year's election, Republicans have been looking for someone who can go toe-to-toe with President Obama and other top Democrats, with most suggesting that person must come from beyond Washington.

On energy and climate, at least, such a Republican has emerged.

Indiana's two-term governor, Mitch Daniels, has delivered an energy message that has drawn praise from conservatives and raised the rumored presidential candidate's profile in what is likely to be a crowded Republican field in 2012. In last weekend's Republican response to Obama's radio address, Daniels attacked Democrats' cap-and-trade legislation aimed at curbing greenhouse gas emissions.

"The scheme to radically change the sources and the cost of American energy through a system known as 'cap and trade' may be well-intentioned," Daniels said, "but it will cost us dearly in jobs and income, and it stands no chance of achieving its objective of a cooler Earth."

While conceding that he agreed with Obama on several issues, Daniels took more shots at House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) than at the White House. But he also used sharp phrases aimed at painting the cap-and-trade plan as an attack on the Midwest -- whose electricity is generated largely by coal-burning power plants -- and a bid to expand the reach of federal regulators.

"It's become clear that the Pelosi bill has little to do with a cooler planet and everything to do with raising money for the out-of-control federal spending now under way in Washington," he said. "Please excuse us Midwesterners for feeling a bit like the targets of an imperialistic policy, devised in places like California, New York, and Massachusetts for their benefit, at our expense."

The address follows Daniels' recent Wall Street Journal op-ed that attacked Democratic climate legislation. The editorial was circulated on conservative blogs and cited by Republicans in Washington and elsewhere.

And last week, Daniels was the lead witness in a forum in his home state that was organized by House Republicans to attack the Democrats' agenda. Daniels said there that he was expressing his views on the issue because he believed cap-and-trade legislation "fails the test of government that works."

"The cost of this policy will be certain, massive and immediate," Daniels said at the event, adding that the legislation would result in a doubling of the utility costs in Indiana.

The forum was organized by another Indiana Republican and a prominent opponent of cap and trade, House Republican Conference Chairman Mike Pence.

Daniels' overall message tracks with that of Republicans in Washington, focusing on what the party maintains will be prohibitive costs and damage to a number of industries. And it is unclear just how much attention Daniels' speeches are getting from Republican voters nationwide or the country as a whole.

Political pundits point out that he has less name recognition and less support among the party's conservative base than Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin and former presidential candidate Mitt Romney. But they also say Daniels has a resume that may make him an appealing voice on the issue for a party desperately seeking credible messengers.

Former OMB director

Geography provides one reason for Daniels' appeal. He is one of just two Republican governors in the Midwest -- the other is Minnesota's Tim Pawlenty -- and he represents a state that is both a major coal producer and reliant on coal for the vast majority of its electricity.

Daniels also has a reputation as a fiscal hawk -- which appeals to the Republican base. As Office of Management and Budget director under former President George W. Bush, he clashed with top appropriators from both parties over spending cuts.

Daniels left OMB in 2003 and won Indiana's gubernatorial election the following year -- becoming the first Republican since 1988 to hold the post. His time in the governor's office has had its up and downs, but he has generally earned praise for his efforts to reform state government. In the past few years, he has had one of the highest gubernatorial approval rankings in the country.

Even as Obama narrowly carried Indiana in 2008, Daniels scored a landslide win in his own re-election. His campaign -- which some observers praised as one of best-run in the country -- immediately started the buzz on Daniels as a 2012 presidential candidate.

At the moment, Daniels appears to be something of a long shot for that role -- he has no national infrastructure and does not appear to be among the early favorites of the party's conservative base, according to analysts.

"I think he's a much more serious and credible vice presidential candidate than a presidential candidates," said Christian Heinze, author of the blog GOP12.com, which closely tracks potential Republican presidential contenders.

"He hasn't even started with any sort of national infrastructure," Heinze said. "If he does run for president, it will be to raise his name awareness."

Daniels himself has said that he has no intention of running for another office and indeed has shown few signs toward a presidential run, but that has done little to stop Republicans and various political observers from floating his name as a candidate.

Heinze did say climate legislation was a major bone of contention for the Republican base, but he doesn't believe that it is one that could be used to propel a presidential campaign. He also said it's unlikely Daniels is the kind of politician who could use climate to score major points on the campaign trail.

"He's pretty palatable to all wings of the party ... but he's not the type of candidate that's going to own an issue that's really going to appeal to the base and run with it," he said. "He's not the type of guy that's going to say, 'Drill, baby, drill,' and if he does, it's not going to be very convincing."

Indiana's importance

Beyond Daniels' own political profile and 2012 prospects, his efforts on energy issues may have more immediate implications, as Indiana is one of the key political battlegrounds in the current fight over the climate bill.

Indiana Democrat Baron Hill was one of the most heavily lobbied swing votes on the House Energy and Commerce Committee in the run-up to the bill's markup last month. He is one of several Indiana Democrats who represent potential swing votes as the bill inches toward the floor.

Both Indiana senators -- Democrat Evan Bayh and Republican Dick Lugar -- are also viewed as fence-sitters when the debate moves to the Senate.

Indiana environmentalists who have repeatedly butted heads with Daniels during his governorship say they aren't worried that his advocacy may influence potential Hoosier state "yes" votes on the climate bill. Indeed, they argue that the message is no different than what he has pushed on the state level for several years, pointing in particular to his often-stated support for the coal industry.

"It's not new with Governor Daniels; it's something we've been dealing with for several years now," said Steve Francis, co-chairman of the Sierra Club Hoosier Chapter.

At the same time, Francis said that as Daniels raises his national profile, the Sierra Club and other environmental groups say they intend to ramp up their own messaging in the state -- pointing in large part to the campaign contributions that Daniels has received from the coal industry.

"Basically, I think it relates to coal and his support to Big Coal," he added. "[The coal industry] got a champion that they're putting all their money behind, and he's going to go out not just in Indiana but nationally. He's certainly ramped up his message."

Correction: Rep. Baron Hill voted for passage of the climate bill through the House Energy and Commerce Committee. An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that he voted against the measure.

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