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Sen. John Thune says he could offer GOP more than just a fresh face in 2012
A more central question for Thune is whether Republicans who berate Obama for having no executive or business experience would anoint another senator with no executive or business experience.
But Thune said that "if you can effectively articulate a vision for where you want to lead this country and you have a demonstrated record of being in the fight, of being in the arena, of being in the trenches - and I do, and yes it's been in the Senate - then I think that's also a compelling narrative."
During his third term as South Dakota's lone House member, he explored a run for governor in 2002, and he was heavily favored to win. Instead, he decided to challenge Sen. Tim Johnson (D-S.D.). Thune lost by 524 votes.
Two years later, with the urging of White House political mastermind Karl Rove, Thune challenged Daschle in what became 2004's marquee Senate race.
"He never flinched," said Dick Wadhams, Thune's campaign manager. "Anybody who doubts how tough he is and what a steely resolve he has should just look at his decision to get up off the mat following a very bitter and contentious loss for the U.S. Senate in 2002 and decide to run against a much more powerful and much tougher opponent like Tom Daschle."
Thune is presenting himself as a simple leader for complex times, a foil to Obama in the mold of Ronald Reagan. He has made his "Midwestern values" - living within his means and pulling his own weight - a centerpiece of his political narrative.
At the Conservative Political Action Conference, he mused about these values as he told the story of his grandfather arriving from Norway in 1906. When he reached American shores, Thune said, the only words he knew in English were "apple pie" and "coffee." At Ellis Island, immigration officials thought his name would be too hard to pronounce, so Nicolai Gjelsvik became Nick Thune. He moved to South Dakota to help build the railroad. After he and his brother saved enough money, they started a merchandising company and then opened a hardware store.
John Thune was raised in the small town of Murdo, S.D., where he was a star basketball player in high school. An evangelical Christian, Thune graduated from Biola, a small religious university in California, and received a master's in business administration at the University of South Dakota.
He quickly established his political roots back home, first as a legislative aide to Sen. James Abdnor and then as executive director of the state Republican Party. In 1996, as an underdog in his first congressional race, he beat the lieutenant governor in the Republican primary and won election to South Dakota's at-large House seat. He served three terms before running against Johnson.
Thune has used his biography to draw contrasts with his would-be rivals for the GOP presidential nomination.
"It's fair to say that I don't have the same national name recognition that some of my more famous Republican colleagues have," he said in his CPAC speech. "I've never had a book signing. I've been to Iowa plenty of times, but it's usually on the way to South Dakota. And the closest I've come to being on a reality TV show is C-SPAN's live coverage of the Senate floor."
Democrats and some of Thune's colleagues question whether the senator's simplicity masks a shallowness.