Via Daniel Halper at the Standard, where Bill Kristol’s umpteen-thousandth plea for Daniels to jump in and rescue the party was published this morning. This isn’t a campaign ad, just an (unusually long and polished) RGA promo keyed to Daniels’s SOTU rebuttal tonight. But let’s face it: If he does well, the “second look at Mitch?” murmurs will be deafening tomorrow and this video will operate effectively as a campaign ad, and the RGA surely knows it. Just as Daniels himself surely knew that his spotlight turn tonight, starring the great what-might-have-been of 2012 positioned opposite Obama on national TV in the thick of the early primaries, would get people talking — and yet he agreed to do it anyway. Intriguing. Romney, at least, must be shivering at the optics of GOP leaders inviting this guy to do battle with The One in primetime. It’s practically a vote of no confidence, a tacit reminder of who the establishment would be backing if Daniels’s decision not to run hadn’t stuck them with Mitt.
But as I said yesterday, it’s too late now for Daniels. If Romney and Gingrich had both ended up disliked and distrusted by the base, then Mitch might feasibly jump in as a Not Romney/Not Gingrich whose pedigree as a Beltway favorite and Bush veteran is easily forgiven. As it is, though — and this is the true significance of Gingrich’s rise in South Carolina — Newt has used his own media-bashing plus the disdain of traditional conservative opinion-makers to turn the race from “Romney vs. Gingrich” into “establishment vs. anti-establishment.” If Daniels got in tomorrow, Newt would cast him as a pawn thrust into the race at the eleventh hour by panicked elitists to hold back the populist tide after Romney failed to do so. He’d point to Daniels’s “truce” talk from months ago as evidence, and suddenly you’d have Romney and Daniels splitting the centrist vote while the grassroots consolidates behind Newt. The only way Daniels would be viable is if Romney dropped out, which wouldn’t happen unless/until Mitt finished third consistently on Super Tuesday, and even then I’m not sure Daniels would win head to head against Gingrich if Newt turned the race into an “a vote for Gingrich is a vote against Republican business as usual” campaign. (He’d have lots of fun noting that Daniels, for all his talk of red ink, was big-spending George Bush’s budget director whereas Newt helped balance the federal budget.) The only viable late entrant now would be someone with both establishment and grassroots credibility such that he/she could neutralize Gingrich’s inevitable strategy. Paul Ryan could do it but he genuinely doesn’t seem to have the appetite and, as a congressman, would have difficulty convincing voters that he had the right experience. I think Jindal could do it but I don’t know if establishment Republicans would line up behind him. Short of that, who?