WASHINGTON, D.C. — Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels had a private question-and-answer session Friday evening with around 50 members of the Yale-led Student Initiative to Draft Daniels. The session took place just before Daniels took the stage to speak at the Conservative Political Action Conference’s Ronald Reagan Banquet, held in the Marriott Ballroom of the Marriott Wardman Park Hotel in Washington, D.C.

The News sat in on the conversation, and here is a short extract of what he said.

Daniels: Let me just say a couple of things to get us started. I don’t know where you all came from, but I thought you ought to have the chance to check out the merchandise personally — I don’t know if Max [Eden ’11, the group’s national director] has a refund policy, but when you’re selling goods over the Internet you ought to.

Seriously, I do feel an obligation to get to know you and vice-versa. The only other thing I really want to say is how uplifted I am at this whole endeavor of yours, and it has nothing to do with me personally. There have been a couple of abortive attempts to organize young people around the inequity and unfairness of the raw deal you are going to be handed if nothing changes, and they haven’t really gotten off the ground as far as I know.

Now, as best I understand it, you are motivated by the right reasons and a very legitimate concern — the most important one of our time. And that’s very, very encouraging to me. I have to tell you, very honestly, that there is an excellent chance I do not run for any other office — it was never in my contemplation, and wouldn’t be now except that a whole lot of people have come to me with this idea, over the course of a year and a half. I laughed it off the first few months as if, ‘that’s how slim the pickings are, now we know where the bottom of the barrel is.’

It is something that I have decided to take seriously. And I don’t say this to be ingratiating — I promise this is true — your little exercise here has been more motivating to me than even the big shots that have come around with the same idea. Truly. And I suppose it is because you seem to have centered, correctly in my view, on the most serious threat to our nation.

I’m going to give a talk that’s not quite typical tonight, but I didn’t know when I would get another chance to tell you how encouraged I am and how important it is that you stay together and multiply further, whatever I do. If it doesn’t prove possible for me to contribute in that way [by running], I’m going to be looking for other ways to engage with the issues that you are engaging with now. And I just hope, if you need to re-brand, you can do that.

Another thing is — whatever fork in the road we take — I would like to make it my business to visit as many of your campuses as I can. That I think would be useful, and you have created the groundwork for it.

Q: You indicated there was an excellent chance you might not run [for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination]. Do you have any idea when you might make a public announcement as to whether you will or will not run?

Daniels: The answer is surely in the next couple of months. Beyond that point, to not decide is to decide, because it will eventually be too late. My view is that this thing [the candidacy process] is not starting as early as most. When people first brought this idea to me, a year and a half ago, everyone said to me, “boy, you gotta get going”. And I said “that ain’t happening”. They said that 18, 12, sixth months ago, and you know what, it’s not too late.

The Indiana general assembly is my number one priority. There is a very high probability of getting some very substantial things done in the state, and I will not do anything to jeopardize that, so it’s going to have to wait a while for that reason.

Q: Do you agree the deficit is too damn high? [This is a reference to an ad the Students Initiative to Draft Daniels released Wednesday, featuring Jimmy McMillan, the “Rent is Too Damn High” guy, who conjures a motto for a possible Daniels’ campaign: “The Deficit is Too Damn High”]

Daniels: Well, here’s a confession. I’m culturally pretty clueless. I didn’t know who the hell that was. Someone emailed the video, I watched it, and emailed him back: “that is just weird.” But now I think I understand who that is and what that was about. And thank you for furthering my cultural education.

Q: If not you [running and winning the Republican nomination], sir, who?

Daniels: I’m not ducking from you, but I don’t have an answer now. I’ve asked four other people to run over the course of the past year, and I’m not doing too well with this. Here’s an honest answer: virtually everyone that has stuck their hand out so far is a good person — and potentially is that person [who could win the presidential election]. I have to hear what they say first. They may not agree with either the priority I would assign, or the urgency, or the approaches I would recommend.

Let’s listen, and I’m very hopeful that I’ll discover someone else who agrees with me.

Q: If it’s not you running, who you know would implement, what do you think of the personal sacrifice that would come with running versus knowing that you can’t know anyone would actually do it [put into effort all your ideas]?

Daniels: There is a personal aspect to it. I have five women in the family, and they get a vote on this. What they think matters a lot to me. It’s not as though I haven’t taken on assignments before where they weren’t happy. But this particular adventure drags the whole family with it, and not just for a few months, so that’s a big part of it.

I am very committed to the current assignment I’m on. I don’t think you’d find anybody at home [in Indiana] who would say we don’t do as we say. If we tell people we think we’re going to do something, we mean it, and we think it’s right. I’d sort of like to finish that job.

Q: Most of the people here like you because you are a man of substance not rhetoric. Every CPAC speaker says they will cut government, balance the budget, they say they love Ronald Reagan, and they tell us they love us too. What’s one substantive thing, if you were president, you would do?

Daniels: If you were to hear my speech tonight, you won’t hear just one — you’ll hear ten. These social welfare laws have got to be reformed, for instance.

Q: If you were president tomorrow, what would be the first federal program you would cut [spending down on]?

Daniels: Huge chunks of domestic discretionary spending. I’m not saying each chunk is useless — some of them are — but the situation demands changes to nice-to-dos like commerce, defense, and education.

Q: In your mind, which government programs deserve saving? What is the metric you use?

Daniels: The central purpose of the government is the safety of its people. And in the context of the federal government, that’s defense. Doesn’t mean that it’s immune from scrutiny, especially at its current size. Those activities that keep Americans alive are first.

After that, it is those things that are directly conducive to allowing people to get ahead. It’s those things government can do to make businesses do the best they can. I believe in government that’s limited but active.

Q: Should you decide to run, what credentials that you have do you believe will make you the most qualified in the race?

Daniels: I get asked about what I did before becoming governor that was most important. They always think I’m going to say something in government. It wasn’t. It was my business years. Those were the years I learned how to make ends meet, how to get large numbers of people to pull together successfully.

In the current federal context, you look and there’s nobody who has even run a lemonade stand. I’m serious. That’s a serious defect, and I think it shows up in their policy. They gush on and on about diversity, but not when it comes to thought or private sector experience.

Q: A lot of people say you’re our only hope, probably all of us in this room, so will you please run for president of the United States of America?

[There are chants of “Run Mitch Run” and Courtney Pannell ‘11 presents Daniels with a t-shirt modeled after the Shepard Fairey-designed t-shirts that feature Barack Obama and the word “hope,” this time with Daniels’ face and “solvency” printed at the bottom]