Republican U.S. Rep. Mike Pence will begin his version of a listening tour on Friday as he mulls whether to run for Indiana governor.
Pence announced Thursday that he wouldn't enter the 2012 presidential campaign despite being urged to do so for months by social conservatives around the country.
Many leading Republicans expect that Pence would be the only prominent candidate to seek the nomination if enters next year's race to replace GOP Gov. Mitch Daniels, who can't run for a third term.
Pence didn't mention the governor's race in a letter sent to supporters Thursday but said he intended "to serve the people of Indiana in some way."
"In the months ahead, as we attend to our duties in Congress, we will also be traveling across the state to listen and learn about how Hoosiers think we might best contribute in the years ahead," Pence said. "After taking time to listen to Hoosiers, we will make a decision later this year about what role we will seek to play."
Pence has a pair of public events scheduled for Friday — a morning town hall meeting in Pendleton and a visit to a high school in Muncie.
The 51-year-old congressman's future has been the subject of speculation since he resigned the No. 3 GOP House leadership slot after easily winning in November for a sixth term from his eastern Indiana district.
"I am convinced he is now going to run for governor," said Mike McDaniel, a former state Republican chairman.
McDaniel said Pence might be waiting to announce a decision on a gubernatorial bid out of respect for Daniels, a potential GOP presidential aspirant who has said he wouldn't make any political announcements until the Legislature's session ends in late April and urged that restraint on others.
A new state ethics law also prohibits any political fundraising by candidates for statewide office until the session ends — although he could continue raising money for his U.S. House campaign fund and later transfer it to a race for governor.
Former Republican state Rep. Jackie Walorski, a tea party favorite who narrowly lost her race last year against Democratic Rep. Joe Donnelly in northern Indiana, said she was excited by the prospect of Pence running for governor.
"I think he's the clear frontrunner, and I think the race is his if he chooses to accept it," Walorski said. "I think he'd clear the field."
State Republican Party Chairman Eric Holcomb said in a statement that Indiana is fortunate to be the home of GOP "rising stars" such as Pence.
"Mike's been a strong voice in Congress and has always proposed common sense approaches to the problems that face our nation," he said. "He will no doubt continue to play a vital role in that conversation as he decides what future service he might offer his state."
Pence, who often describes himself as "a Christian, a conservative, and a Republican, in that order," is one of the party's most outspoken critics of President Barack Obama. In September, Pence finished first in a straw poll of social conservatives who were asked to name the person they'd like to see as the 2012 nominee.
Pence is from Columbus and was an attorney before running unsuccessfully for Congress against Democrat Phil Sharp in 1988 and 1990. He then was president of the Indiana Policy Review think tank and a radio talk show host before running for Congress again in 2000 after Republican David McIntosh gave up the seat for an unsuccessful run for governor.
A little more than 10 years later, Pence is now most prominent Republican discussed as a candidate to replace Daniels.
No well-known Democrats are looming since former Sen. Evan Bayh said last month that he wouldn't seek a return to the governor's office. Potential Democratic candidates include Rep. Joe Donnelly, Evansville Mayor Jonathan Weinzapfel and former Rep. Brad Ellsworth, who was the unsuccessful Democratic nominee last year for Bayh's Senate seat.
McDaniel said that while he was state GOP chairman — from 1995 until 2002 — Pence mentioned the governor's office to him.
"He told me then that he thought he could accomplish more for the people of Indiana as governor than he could in Congress," he said. "This has been on his mind for a long time."