John Thune is on every short list of Republican presidential prospects, which for most people raises two questions: Who? And why?
The South Dakota senator is renowned in political circles for ousting Democrat Tom Daschle, the Senate minority leader, in 2004. But he's not associated with any particular issue and he's certainly not a household name.
The past few days have shown why that could change, and not just because Thune is tall, dark and handsome. To be sure, he and New York Democrat Kirsten Gillibrand more than lived up to their advance billing as bipartisan nerd prom king and queen
when they strolled into the House chamber together for the State of the Union address.
Yet the day had begun even more auspiciously for Thune, 50, when Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell tossed out his name as a rising Republican star. "I think he should" run for president, McConnell said at a Politico Playbook Breakfast
. "He's a very sharp, capable individual -- good speaker, good leadership qualities, which I see on display every week in the Senate. I'm a big John Thune fan."
Later, in a pre-State of the Union interview inside the Capitol, CNBC's Larry Kudlow asked Thune
, "Is there a pet John Thune issue you want to raise to get on the presidential agenda?" "I think that sort of restoring belief in American exceptionalism," Thune replied. "Moving back to some of those core principles and values that had helped shape this country and make it strong. You know, Ronald Reagan once said there are no easy answers but there are simple answers, and I think that's really true. And I think Midwestern common sense would be in great need and great demand around here." He chuckled, then added: "And learning to live within your means. There are just a lot of sort of basic principles that we've gotten away from that we need to get back to."
Give Thune credit for offering a fairly cogent why-not-me rationale on the fly, plus extra points for dropping Reagan's name and mentioning his Midwestern roots. Still, his answer did nothing to set him apart from virtually every other Republican considering a race. They are all talking about Reagan, American exceptionalism, core values and principles, common sense, heartland roots and living within one's means.
Thune's real strengths may lie elsewhere -- in his political savvy, his communication skills and his lack of baggage. "He's very good at talking to people. He's very good at putting things simply and succinctly. And it doesn't hurt that he's pretty good looking -- that's what my wife says," says Jon Schaff, a political scientist at Northern State University in Aberdeen, S.D.
Nor does it hurt that Thune has several advantages in neighboring Iowa, home of the caucuses that kick off the nominating process early next year. Four northwestern Iowa counties are in the Sioux Falls, S.D., media market, so some Iowans are used to seeing Thune on TV. He is a major supporter of ethanol subsidies -- a make-or-break issue among Iowa farmers whose corn is used to make a form of the alternative fuel. And he has a potential base among the social conservatives who turn out heavily for the caucuses.
Tom Mann, a congressional expert at the Brookings Institution, calls Thune one of countless senators who see themselves as presidential timber. The odds are that "he will join the ranks of the many who are called but not chosen. Good looks, attractive style, the Daschle-killer. Not sure what else there is," Mann wrote in an e-mail.
In the absence of obvious policy chops or legislative achievements, that is a big question about Thune: Is there a "there" there? I posed it to longtime party fundraiser and Thune ally Gregory Slayton, who is talking him up in New Hampshire, which holds the first 2012 primary. "Are you asking me about Barack Obama or John Thune? That's my response," he said, in an allusion to the conservative view of Obama as being lightly qualified, if at all, when he ran for the presidency.
Thune currently holds his party's no. 4 leadership position in the Senate, chairman of the Republican Policy Committee, and he sits on four committees: Agriculture, Commerce, Budget and Finance. "I wouldn't call him an innovative thinker. His job is to explain the policy, not come up with it," Schaff told me. Recalling Thune in jeans at a wide-ranging town hall meeting in a livestock sale barn, Schaff is still impressed by "the breadth of information he had at his fingertips" and the "command of material" that he showed in answering questions. He remembers thinking, "This guy is the best politician I've ever seen."
Thune grew up in Murdo, pop. 544, and at 16 had a fateful conversation with then-Rep. Jim Abdnor
about his performance in a high school basketball game. He ended up in Washington as an Abdnor aide. One thing led to another -- executive director of the state GOP, state railroad director, head of the state municipal league, election to the House in 1996. Thune very nearly beat Democratic Sen. Tim Johnson in 2002, losing by less than 600 votes, but preserved goodwill in his state by declining to drag out the contest with a recount.
After two years as a lobbyist and consultant, Thune roared back and rousted Daschle, 51 percent to 49 percent. Last year he won reelection with nearly double that share -- 100 percent
, to be exact. Nobody ran against him. "He was absolutely unbeatable," Schaff said.
Conventional and conservative would describe Thune's record over a dozen years in the House and Senate. He has been a reliable vote for gun rights and abortion restrictions. The League of Conservation Voters, which rates candidates on the environment, put him on its "Dirty Dozen
" list in 2002 and 2004. Last year he opposed the New START treaty with Russia and also opposed repealing the military's don't ask, don't tell ban on openly gay troops. As Wall Street was about to collapse in 2008, he voted for the $700 billion Troubled Asset Relief Program -- a potential but not necessarily fatal problem for him.
Thune's generic conservative views, congressional career and intact marriage have kept him out of controversial territory. He wasn't once a tobacco lobbyist (Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour). He isn't a former governor who raised taxes (Mike Huckabee of Arkansas) or signed a health law similar to "Obamacare" (Mitt Romney of Massachusetts) or quit halfway through (Sarah Palin of Alaska) or seems boring (Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota). He hasn't had three wives and a widely publicized extramarital affair (former House speaker Newt Gingrich).
Slayton, a former diplomat and Silicon Valley entrepreneur, was Thune's northern California finance chairman in the 2002 Senate race against Johnson. He's now teaching at Dartmouth's Tuck School of Business and last year he co-chaired winning Senate candidate Kelly Ayotte's national finance committee. He says one of Thune's major assets is that he's liked across the aisle. "That's a big deal, especially in these days where partisan rancor is just palpable," he said. The main challenge at this point is to overcome Thune's obscurity. "The vast majority" of people in New Hampshire don't know him, Slayton said.
Thune says he's avoiding Iowa and New Hampshire until he decides whether to run. That doesn't preclude engagements elsewhere as he deliberates. He is booked at one of the first cattle calls of the cycle -- the Conservative Political Action Committee conference in Washington the weekend of Feb. 10-12. Two weeks later he'll be the featured speaker at party dinners in two general-election swing states, Minnesota and Missouri.
Meanwhile, that low national profile is already rising. As presidential speculation about him mounted last week, media across the spectrum showered Thune with attention: Fox News (the president is "kind of late to the game
" on spending cuts); ABC News (there's a "big opportunity
on the national field"); the Hugh Hewitt Show (he'll "let folks know our intentions
" by the end of February); Talking Points Memo (it's not the time to "invest
" in infrastructure); and The Washington Post ("spending cuts must come first
" before raising the debt limit).
By one measure of who's hot, Thune falls in the mid-range. The GOP12 blog, which follows the 2012 GOP nomination race, listed 280 news posts
about Thune as of Saturday. That was a lot more than former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum (102) or Barbour (130), about the same as Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels (249), and well below Gingrich (466), Pawlenty (591), Huckabee (636) and Romney (712). Of course, none of them came anywhere close to Palin (1,983).
Could Thune prove competitive with Palin on the glamour-and-buzz front? He looks the part. We'll see if he decides to read for it.
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