WASHINGTON – Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels joined the march of would-be GOP presidential hopefuls offstage Sunday in a dead-of-night decision that put his supporters and donors in play as Republicans compete in a wide-open race for the chance to challenge President Barack Obama in 2012.
Just hours after Daniels bowed out, former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty declared "I'm running for president of the United States" in an Internet video that sought to position the laid-back Midwesterner as tough enough to take on Obama.
Over the past few weeks, the field for the GOP presidential nomination has quickly become clearer even though the race itself seems more uncertain, with polls showing Republican primary voters craving more options as the GOP establishment hungers for a fresh face.
At this point, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who lost the GOP nomination in 2008, is seeking a second chance in a Republican Party that usually nominates the next guy in line. And several others are looking to emerge as his main challenger.
Among them: Pawlenty, a conservative who governed a Democratic-leaning state; former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, who recently resigned as U.S. ambassador to China under Obama and is all but certain to enter the race; and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, whose campaign got off to a rocky start over the past few weeks.
With voting set to begin in eight months, several question marks remain — perhaps the biggest being whether former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin will enter the race.
Also unanswered: whether establishment Republicans, including some in the Bush family circle who had urged Daniels to run, will ultimately be successful at courting a fiscal conservative with the stature to challenge Obama into the race or whether it will rally behind a candidate already in the mix.
Influential GOP donors who courted Daniels have tried to entice former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, son and brother of former presidents, and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie into the contest. There's also been talk of Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan, the House Budget Committee chairman whose budget blueprint for the election year deeply cuts government spending.
But Bush and Christie insist they are not seeking the nomination. And Ryan waved off any suggestion that he was interested in joining the 2012 contest, saying on NBC's "Meet the Press" that "you never know what opportunities present themselves way down the road. I'm not talking about right now."
Another name being mentioned ever more frequently in GOP circles in Washington is Texas Gov. Rick Perry, though he's repeatedly denied 2012 presidential aspirations.
Daniels' supporters don't seem in a rush to rally behind someone else.
John Hammond, one of Daniels' top fundraisers, said a core group of Daniels' backers will await the governor's advice, saying, "I know a lot of us will be waiting to see and hear what Mitch is going to say." And Bob Grand, who ran Romney's Indiana fundraising efforts in 2008 but was prepared to support Daniels, said the group plans to meet in the coming days to vet the remaining candidates.
The candidates — declared or not — aren't waiting, judging by the compliments that flowed in after Daniels' announcement.
Huntsman associated himself with Daniels' message of fiscal conservatism, saying in a statement, "His message about the most immediate threat facing our nation — the massive debt — will not go unheard."
Gingrich praised the Indiana governor, telling CBS' "Face the Nation" that he thought Daniels "would be in the front-runners from Day One if he'd decided to run."
The scramble for Daniels' supporters came hours after the governor disclosed to his backers early Sunday that he would not run because his family had vetoed the idea.
"In the end, I was able to resolve every competing consideration but one," Daniels said in a middle-of-the-night email. "The interests and wishes of my family is the most important consideration of all."
He's the latest in a list of Republicans who opted against running for president after considering it. They include former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, businessman Donald Trump, Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, South Dakota Sen. John Thune and Indiana Rep. Mike Pence.
Daniels had weighed a bid for months, and he had seemed more optimistic about a run in the past week. But as he talked about a candidacy, he always pointed back to his family as the primary issue that would hold him back.
His wife, Cheri, filed for divorce in 1993 and moved to California to remarry, leaving him to raise their four daughters in Indiana. She later divorced again, and she and Daniels reconciled and remarried in 1997.
Mrs. Daniels had never taken much of a public role in her husband's political career. So it raised eyebrows when she was chosen as the keynote speaker at a major Indiana fundraiser in May.
Both husband and wife were said to be pleased with the reception they got, and advisers suggested that the outcome could encourage Daniels to run. Even so, Republicans in Washington and Indiana with ties to Daniels put the odds at 50-50.
Daniels, who had been President George W. Bush's budget director, used his time considering a run to shine a spotlight on rising budget deficits and national debt, even though Bush enlarged the scope of government and federal spending.
A one-time senior executive at Eli Lilly & Co., Daniels caused a stir among cultural conservatives by saying the next president facing economic crisis "would have to call a truce on the so-called social issues."
Daniels made his intentions clear in a characteristically understated email.
It was sent by the governor through Eric Holcomb, the Indiana Republican Party chairman and one of Daniels' closest advisers
"Many thanks for your help and input during this period of reflection," the statement ended. "Please stay in touch if you see ways in which an obscure Midwestern governor might make a constructive contribution to the rebuilding of our economy and our republic."
Associated Press writers Alan Fram and Philip Elliott in Washington and Tom LoBianco in Indianapolis contributed to this report.