While names like Palin, Romney and Huckabee get most of the attention when it comes to 2012 presidential speculation, a dark horse may be rising out of the Great Plains.
South Dakota Sen. John Thune has $5.5 million in the bank, a handsome face, hoop skills that rival the president's and an upward trajectory in the U.S. Senate. Despite failing at a 2008 bid to head the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC), Thune was able to take control of the Republican Policy Committee after Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.) fell from grace.
He's not widely known nationally, which is both an obvious obstacle and perhaps a blessing in disguise: The national media has not turned him into a caricature. That may change in the future. Thune is beginning to generate buzz as a potential 2012 presidential candidate. For example, New York Times
columnist David Brooks recently wrote a glowing puff piece on him
, going so far as to say of Thune, "He is a gracious and ecumenical legislator, not a combative one. When you ask him to mention authors he likes, he mentions C.S. Lewis and Jeff Shaara, not political polemicists. The first person who told me I had to write a column about Thune was a liberal Democratic senator who really likes the guy."
To be sure, grace and wit -- not to mention legislative experience and intelligence -- will be an important commodity for any Republican seeking to deny President Obama a second term. The rub against Thune has always been that he's too boring to be elected president. Denizens of the upper Midwest are rarely known for their fiery emotions or natural charisma, so it's not surprising that Thune has a reputation for being a bit dry.
On a conference call this Tuesday, however, I found Thune to be passionate -- and quotable. For example, he dismissed the notion that Sen. Olympia Snowe of Maine might vote for health care reform, bluntly telling me he expects Republicans "will be united in opposition" to the Senate health care bill. "This will be and is a Democrat bill," he predicted. Thune then went on to compare the Obama administration's regulatory and climate change policies to "a war on the West."
The ability to throw that sort of red meat is important in a GOP primary, and over the last few weeks, a fan club has developed for Thune on Twitter. Some of the excitement about him seems tied to his being upfront on the issues, but as one Senate staffer tells me, "It also has to do with his looks."
"He looks very electable to me," Teichman told me. "Obviously, since the last election, that's something to consider -- because they have to sell themselves to the American people."
About a month ago, Teichman decided to send out a Thune tweet each day. She found a small, but growing audience of fans as others on Twitter, including @bccohan, quickly joined. (Supporters are using the #Thune2012 hashtag, so that Thune tweets are searchable.)
Thune's team has not yet reached out to these online grassroots opinion leaders. "I've been very curious to see whether he's got someone . . . who is watching Twitter. I'm waiting to see if we ever get any response from them," Teichman said.
Though a nascent "Draft Thune" movement seems to be slowly gaining steam, the senator himself is consciously avoiding being cast as a "candidate in waiting." On Tuesday's conference call, Thune laughed off my question regarding his presidential ambitions, pointing -- as he must -- to his 2010 re-election campaign.
Team Thune is surely cognizant of what happened to former Sen. George Allen, who was a frontrunner for the 2008 GOP presidential nomination -- before losing his Senate re-election to Jim Webb: Thune's 2004 campaign manager Dick Wadhams
was also Allen's manager.
Thune has reason to be wary. According to "The Almanac of American Politics," Thune can claim the biggest landslide in S.D. history (75 percent in his 1998 House race) and as well as two of the closest elections (49.9 percent in a 2002 Senate loss and 51 percent in his 2004 win over Tom Daschle).
Warren G. Harding was the last Republican to be elected president from the U.S. Senate. For whatever reason, Americans, especially Republicans, like candidates from the executive branch. And Thune is clearly a creature of Capitol Hill, having worked as a Capitol Hill staffer, served as South Dakota's lone congressman, and how having been a U.S. senator.
That governmental background could be used against him by more conservative Republican candidates. His votes in favor of Bush-era farm bills might be excused by fiscally conservative groups such as The Club for Growth on the grounds of parochial home state considerations. But one congressional vote sure to be used against Thune would be his 2001 support of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance legislation while he was a member of the House. Thune also was reportedly prepared to oppose the nomination of John Bolton
as part of a deal cut to keep Ellsworth Air Force base from closing.
In recent years, however, Thune has gone out of his way to bolster his conservative bona fides. Recently, for example, he offered an amendment to the Defense authorization bill that would allow individuals to carry concealed firearms across state lines if they "have a valid permit or if, under their state of residence, they are entitled to do so."
Republicans I interviewed for this column suggested that Thune's relative blandness may make him a better vice presidential candidate, at least initially. Of course, running for president can lead one to be selected vice president, and serving as vice president can lead one to become the president. Regardless of what happens, Thune's future looks bright.