WASHINGTON (AP) — 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 in play and muddled the fight for front-runner status against President Barack Obama.
Daniels' exit, which he said he made at his family's behest, clears the upcoming news cycle to absorb former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty's entry into the race Monday in Iowa.
For the moment, Pawlenty would be the only Midwesterner in the campaign, a conservative who governed a Democratic-leaning state and has a record resisting tax increases and spending increases.
But Pawlenty would have a rival for the claim of No. 1 fiscal conservative in Jon Huntsman, the former Utah governor and Obama's first ambassador to China. Both Republicans are competing to emerge as the principle challenger to ex-Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.
A core group of supporters will await Daniels' advice before getting on board with any campaign, said John Hammond, one of Daniels' top fundraisers. This group plans to meet in the coming days to vet the remaining candidates, said Bob Grand, who ran Romney's Indiana fundraising efforts in 2008 but was prepared to support Daniels.
"I know a lot of us will be waiting to see and hear what Mitch is going to say," Hammond said.
Daniels' departure may make room for other contenders as establishment Republicans, including some in the Bush family circle, search for a fiscal conservative with the stature to challenge Obama. 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.
Also tossed into the mix is Rep. Paul Ryan, the House Budget Committee chairman. His budget blueprint for the election year cuts government spending in line with the populist mandate of the 2010 congressional elections, Republican say.
Bush, Christie and Ryan, R-Wis., insist they are not seeking the nomination.
The renewed scramble came hours after Daniels, President George W. Bush's budget chief, disclosed to his supporters 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. If I have disappointed you, I will always be sorry."
It wasn't immediately clear when Daniels made up his mind.
When an Associated Press reporter asked him in an interview on Tuesday which way he was leaning, Daniels replied: "I'm standing upright at the moment" and said he'd decide soon.
Decision announced, the compliments from possible contenders poured in.
Huntsman associated himself with Daniels' message of fiscal conservatism.
"His message about the most immediate threat facing our nation — the massive debt — will not go unheard," Huntsman said in a statement, which did not directly address his own plans.
"I look forward to working with him to promote long-term solutions to our nation's problems as well as continuing a valued friendship."
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who's in the race, told CBS' "Face the Nation" that he thought Daniels "would be in the front-runners from Day One if he'd decided to run."
Ryan said Daniels "would have been a great addition to this race." One the House's "young guns," Ryan waved off any suggestion that he was interested in joining the 2012 contest.
"You never know what opportunities present themselves way down the road," Ryan said on NBC's "Meet the Press." ''I'm not talking about right now."
Polls show that Republican primary voters want more options than they have now.
But with Daniels' departure, the race these days seems more about who isn't running than who is. Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee is out; so is Donald Trump. Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour pulled the plug, following Sen. John Thune of South Dakota and Rep. Mike Pence of Indiana.
Daniels seemed more optimistic about a run in the past week than he had in months, though he never had sounded particularly enthused. His advisers had reached out to Republicans in Iowa and other early nominating states for private conversations.
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 for president. Even so, Republicans in Washington and Indiana with ties to Daniels put the odds at 50-50.
Daniels 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.
Bush, famously fond of nicknaming those he liked, called Daniels "the Blade" for his pursuit of budget cuts. Daniels has said "the piñata" might have been more appropriate, given the way members of Congress beat him up for trying to cut spending and earmarks.
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."
He is looked with admiration in GOP circles for being the rare Republican who won office in 2008, a Democratic year, in a state that Obama won. Since being re-elected, he has leveraged Republican majorities in the Indiana Legislature to push through a conservative agenda.
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, Liz Sidoti and Philip Elliott in Washington and Tom LoBianco in Indianapolis contributed to this report.