New GOP star stirs up presidential buzz

Wednesday, January 13, 2010 - 2:08pm

With resurgent Republicans growing increasingly confident that President Barack Obama may yet be a political mortal in 2012, a new name is emerging as a potential presidential contender: South Dakota Sen. John Thune.

For those in the GOP who aren’t giddy about a second Mitt Romney run and aren’t sold on the viability of Tim Pawlenty, Thune represents a mainstream conservative alternative.

Tall, handsome, not yet 50 and with the sort of sunny demeanor that winning national Republicans usually possess, the former high school hoops star looks the part.

He’s also something of a national party favorite for slaying a political giant — then-Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle in 2004.

That race gave Thune a firsthand appreciation for the dangers of being perceived as straying too far from one’s heartland roots, so, as he faces reelection, he’s spending more time in his native Murdo, S.D., than in Manchester or Des Moines.

Yet while the official line is that he’s focused on South Dakota, aides and allies said that if, as expected, the March 30 candidate filing deadline passes and he does not have significant opposition, Thune may then start to take a more aggressive national posture by stumping for other Republican Senate candidates. Already a member of the Senate GOP leadership, he’s quietly begun seeking out conservative opinion leaders, and his staff is promoting his stepped-up media appearances.

Further, later in January, he’s going to report having more than $6 million in the bank — money that could be transferred to a presidential bid — and, thanks to the Daschle race, a 100,000-person-strong fundraising list. A Young Professionals event later this month in Washington is expected to draw a large crowd of up-and-coming lobbyists and operatives.

Thune is generating buzz, but the early chatter also poses an important question: With few significant accomplishments, is the talk reflective of somebody seen as real presidential timber or a leading indicator of a party establishment casting about for a candidate in what could be a thin field?

“No one seems particularly excited about the current prospective field,” said GOP strategist Mark McKinnon. “And everyone loves Thune.”

Another prominent Republican who is less enthusiastic about Thune was more blunt. “There’s certainly an opening for him, but what is his theory of the case?” asked this official.

That’s to say, what would be the Thune raison d’être, his version of the issue trio — criminal justice, education and welfare reform — that then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush so relentlessly ran on in 2000?

Thune supporters point to his leadership on promoting energy alternatives and trying to overturn the Troubled Asset Relief Program and say he’ll step up his critique of what he believes is excessive spending by Democrats — a line of attack that could help further elevate his profile.

“At a time when we’re burning taxpayer money like coal in a 19th-century steam engine, Thune’s message of focused fiscal restraint, coupled with aggressive small-business incentives to drive growth, will resonate extremely well with the GOP base and independents as well as Democrats,” said Jeff Kimbell, a Republican lobbyist and Thune enthusiast.

But when pressed on the matter of Thune’s record, some of his backers effectively conceded the point by privately noting that the current occupant of the White House didn’t exactly run on a lot of experience.

“To a certain extent, he’s our version of Obama — the tall, lanky, good-looking, well-spoken senator” is how a former top party official put it.

Yet some who have spent time around Thune said the comparison doesn’t hold up when it comes to the perception of towering intellect and that the more apt comparison is with another well-known national Democrat, Indiana Sen. Evan Bayh: good-looking, articulate and decent but a little bland and perceived as not all that deep.

But McKinnon sees a third possibility: “He could be the 2012 federal version of Bob McDonnell,” said the GOP adman of the Virginia governor-elect. “He’s unquestionably conservative but not in an ideological way — more in a Midwestern, rural, country, small-town way. So he’s acceptable to all factions.”

Thune’s appeal to both wings of the Republican Party is underscored in interviews with two of his colleagues, senators who offer perhaps the most vivid example of the competing voices within the GOP.

“I think John has got unlimited potential,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), a leading advocate for making the GOP more inclusive. “He presents well, he’s well-liked, he’s smart — I could see where he could be a national figure.”

Graham’s South Carolina colleague, Sen. Jim DeMint, is an unapologetic conservative who believes the party needs to stay true to its principles, yet he also has nothing but praise for Thune, his 2004 classmate.

“He’s a great new leader for our party,” said DeMint, calling the South Dakotan a “common-sense conservative.”

Though he doesn’t promote it, and it wasn’t listed on his 2004 campaign website, Thune is a graduate of a California Bible college. And on cultural issues such as gay marriage and abortion, he’s pure to the party base.

For many Republicans, though, Thune is still the man who dethroned Daschle — the winner of an epic Senate race that at the time seemed to seal the GOP’s Bush-era hold on Congress.

As South Dakota’s lone House member, Thune first lost a challenge against Sen. Tim Johnson in 2002. Two years later, he passed up a gubernatorial bid to take on Daschle and became the first candidate to knock off a sitting Senate leader in more than a half-century.

Those who witnessed him in both Senate races said the differences were striking and lauded his growth as a candidate.

Yet nothing, not even a high-profile Senate race, can compare with the scrutiny that comes with even dipping a toe in the presidential waters.

“The question for him would be his ability to handle the crucible of a national campaign,” said a Democrat who worked against him in the state, noting the contrast between the South Dakota and the national media.

"There’s a difference between running against Tom Daschle and running for president,” added a senior Republican who knows and likes Thune but is a skeptic about his White House prospects.

It’s what Thune did before he took on Daschle, though, that could be used against him. After his 2002 defeat, Thune became a Washington lobbyist. While at Arent Fox, he represented a home-state railroad client that had an ambitious plan to rehabilitate and expand more than 1,000 miles of track. Then, after being elected to the Senate, he pushed for federal funding for the same rail project on which he had just worked for as a lobbyist.

“I don’t apologize, and never will, for working for South Dakota companies that are creating South Dakota jobs,” he said at the time.

Thune backers suggest that portraying the senator as a slick former lobbyist won’t be easy, given his small-town profile and the brief period of time he spent on K Street.

Raised in a small, central South Dakota town — population about 700 — Thune’s got a traditional story. His father fought in World War II before coming home to teach, coach and raise a family. Both his parents, now in their 90s, still live in the same house in Murdo in which the senator and his siblings were raised.

Thune, his aides noted, returns to the state nearly every weekend.

“He lives in a regular house in a regular neighborhood in Sioux Falls, S.D.,” said Thune’s campaign manager, Justin Brasell, pre-emptively addressing one of the issues that dogged Daschle in 2004 — his million-dollar Foxhall Road home in Washington.

Thune’s Main Street roots and nice-guy demeanor could play well in first-in-the-nation Iowa, a state that rewards affable politicians who can pull up a chair and talk farming and football.

Thune also has something of an advantage in the state, having aired many ads that played in the parts of western Iowa that share a media market with South Dakota. And the senator himself is no stranger to the Iowa part of what’s known as Siouxland, the heavily conservative northwest corner of the Hawkeye State, having campaigned there for Sen. John McCain in 2008 and headlined a fundraiser for Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) last year.

Though he doesn’t have the infrastructure of Romney or even Pawlenty, Thune has many fans among operatives and lobbyists, and he’s surrounded by savvy strategists, including the well-regarded Brasell and longtime GOP adman Scott Howell.

Thune is also helped by a natural pol’s gift for remembering names and stories.

A former aide recalled that when the then-candidate greeted scores of fans by name at a 2002 South Dakota State football game, a national TV crew got angry, thinking the campaign had planted a group of supporters to come through the gate while Thune was working the crowd.

“I told them, ‘John is just amazing at remembering people’s names,’” said the former aide. “He proved it when he later remembered the entire four-person TV crew’s names two hours after he met them while walking in.”