CULVER, Indiana—Pundits say he's too short, at 5-foot-7, and lacks the requisite pizzazz to be elected president.
Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels believes he faces a taller challenge as he ponders a White House run: Could voters warm to his message that the country is doomed unless it slashes its debt and radically revamps the popular Social Security and Medicare programs?
In any other year, a campaign platform that gloomy would render a politician toxic. Today, with concerns over the nation's fiscal health on the rise, the Indiana Republican's wonkish bravado is making some think he is a good fit for the moment.
If the time is indeed right for Mr. Daniels's get-tough message, the angry budget standoffs in states such as Wisconsin, Ohio and New Jersey are also shining a new light on his credentials as a messenger. Mr. Daniels rescinded collective-bargaining rights for state employees six years ago—long before Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker caused a firestorm by putting the same issue on the table.
Mr. Daniels also cut spending, trimmed the state work force to its smallest in decades, and turned a yawning deficit into a surplus, with only scattered outbursts of popular anger along the way.
He has emerged from all this with high marks from voters, and a profile that sets him apart from the other Republicans mulling a possible 2012 run. An array of conservatives, including former Vice President Dick Cheney and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, would like to see him enter the 2012 race.
He's the only potential candidate "who sees the stark perils and will offer real detailed proposals," Mr. Bush said last week in praising Mr. Daniels before a Florida business group. Republican Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey on Thursday heaped almost identical praise on his Indiana counterpart.
Other potential 2012 hopefuls, along with both parties in Washington, are dancing gingerly around the question of ballooning federal entitlements, concerned that voters might rebel at the idea of benefit cuts. Mr. Daniels shows no such restraint. Social Security? Jack up the retirement age and end it altogether for wealthier Americans, he says. Medicare? Turn it into a voucher system and let people buy their own health insurance.
Mr. Daniels has even waded into one of the most fear-inspiring subjects in politics—health-care rationing—by suggesting the government put limits on end-of-life care.