Sen. John Thune says he could offer GOP more than just a fresh face in 2012

By Philip Rucker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 17, 2011; 8:54 PM

Why does a guy like John Thune think he could be president of the United States?

In the seven years since the South Dakotan was labeled a Republican golden boy after unseating Senate Democratic leader Thomas A. Daschle, Thune has not set himself apart on a single issue in Washington. And then with his 2008 vote for the bank bailouts, Thune agitated his party's conservative base.

Although Thune is usually liked if not loved by Republicans who know of him, he does not have an impassioned following. Unlike a string of governors and former governors eyeing a presidential run, he can't claim executive experience. In fact, he has spent most of his career in government or politics.

And when Thune talks, in interviews and in speeches, he sticks to generic phrases that neither offend nor excite.

At the Conservative Political Action Conference last week, for instance, he introduced himself as a potential candidate for the GOP's 2012 presidential nomination with a respectable, predictable speech filled with familiar attacks on President Obama.

"Because of my upbringing, I believe in things like limited government, fiscal responsibility and personal accountability," Thune said. "I believe in the wisdom of our founders and the sanctity of our Constitution. And I believe that, in order for our values to have meaning, our actions must match our words. If you're blessed enough to serve in public office, then you shouldn't just talk a good game about your values; you should cast your vote according to them."

Yet more than a few powerful boosters, among them Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), think this could be his moment. And Thune agrees.

The Republican Party is searching not just for a standard-bearer to go up against Obama next year, but for a new identity in a new political environment - a person who can embody last year's dramatic change and tea party-led toppling of one-party rule, while still being a leader for the whole GOP. As the presidential field takes shape, with no overwhelming Republican front-runner and a cast of flawed potential hopefuls, there's initial buzz about Thune.

Some Republicans think this handsome son of the High Plains could bridge the party's establishment with its grass-roots rowdies. In Thune, Republicans see a fresh, unflappable face who looks like he is destined to be president - tall, plain-spoken, homespun. What's more, they argue, Obama didn't have any more political or business experience than Thune when he ran.

All of this has the 50-year-old mulling over whether to enter the marathon for the nomination. Thune said he plans to make a decision by the end of the month.

His face has grown angular and creased at his half-century mark, with his neat hair thinning if not yet graying. And as he settled his lanky frame into a wing chair in his spacious Senate office for an interview last week, Thune waved around his big hands - long fingers and knobby knuckles - as he sketched out just how he thinks he could win.

"If people's goal is to win this presidential election in 2012, they ought to nominate somebody who is the most electable conservative out there," he said.

In his opinion, of course, that somebody is him.

"It's like an athletic competition," said the former high school jock. "It really comes down to match-ups, and the teams that match up best with their opponents usually have the best chance of winning."

Thune and Obama were born seven months apart and arrived in the Senate on the same day in 2005. "In terms of the attributes that people are attracted to in President Obama - his youth, his energy, those sorts of things - I think it's going to take somebody who can match up," he said.

If he runs, he said, he will be "on offense."

"People will not have to worry about the question of whether I have the fire in the belly," he said. "At the end of the day, this becomes a gut-level decision. You can do all the analysis and collect all the data points, but that's the fundamental question. And if we're in, we'll be in, and we'll be in to win."

'In the trenches'

Thune has been navigating the presidential will-he-or-won't-he straits with caution. He said he has been calling potential donors and supporters, sizing up his chances in a field that has yet to take shape. And he has chewed over the decision with his wife, Kimberly, and their two adult daughters, Brittany and Larissa.

But Thune also has publicly signaled some hesitation about running. He would start the race with about $7 million in his campaign account, but unlike some rivals, he has no national organization of strategists, and he has avoided trips to neighboring Iowa, home of the first-in-the-nation caucuses.

Giving Thune pause, friends said, is whether he wants to subject his family to the physical and emotional rigors of a national campaign.

"He's probably gone back and forth any number of times already," said Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.), who said he thinks Thune would be a "hell of a president" and has discussed the possibility with him many nights over pizza and Chinese food.

"John's got a tape worm," Chambliss said. "The guy can eat more than anybody I've ever seen. They'll have to get a new chef at the White House. Whatever's left over at the Chinese place - and we just do it family-style - John makes sure there's nothing left." More aggravating still, Thune's frame shows no evidence of overeating - a testament to his running and basketball regimen that his intimates say verges on obsessive.

Kimberly Thune said in a brief interview that she worries most about protecting their daughters from media scrutiny. "As a wife and as a mother, I always take things personally - more than John because he's got a tougher skin," she said. But if he runs, she added, she will be "100 percent behind him."

Thune's biggest liabilities probably would be his lack of executive experience and that vote for the Troubled Asset Relief Program, which President George W. Bush and Cabinet secretaries had urged senators to support. Thune later tried to reform or reverse the bank bailout, but the TARP vote is a scarlet letter for conservative activists.

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."

'Midwestern values'

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.

"No one takes him too lightly, but no one's afraid of him, either," said Democratic strategist Nathan Daschle, whose father was unseated by Thune. "He's a young, good-looking, articulate conservative, and that explains why he's generating a bit of enthusiasm. But I don't think anyone knows what his sense of purpose is. What is he here to do? . . . For Republicans to beat President Obama, they need to be able to instill in their supporters a sense of purpose, and I just don't know how Thune does that."

'In this to win'

In his wood-paneled suite in the most stately Senate office building (Russell), Thune keeps photos and books of the Mount Rushmore State. Even a stuffed pheasant is perched near his desk. Thune, like many South Dakotans, is a hunter. He also is a member and loyal supporter of the National Rifle Association. And yet, after more than a decade in Congress, he is not identified with any single issue.

"That may be a liability," Thune acknowledged. "But really I've been involved in all those major fights." He cited recent debates over health-care reform, financial services regulation and "stopping this runaway Obama agenda."

Thune chairs the Senate Republican Policy Committee, the No. 4 leadership position, and presides over the GOP senators' private lunches every Tuesday. Sen. Richard G. Lugar (Ind.), the most senior Republican senator, said Thune plays his role "with grace and diplomacy." But when asked whether he has shown leadership on a specific policy issue, Lugar said: "I've not observed that."

"He's kind of an enigma," said a former senior GOP leadership aide who spoke on the condition of anonymity to share observations candidly. "When you hear senators or chiefs [of staff] talking about Thune, it's always with a little bit of puzzlement. Is he an empty suit? Or does he really have his eye on the ball? Nobody's really sure. They just keep watching him."

GOP Senate leaders have been testing Thune as an effective messenger. So every Tuesday afternoon, he faces the cameras for weekly news conferences. He usually stands behind McConnell and other GOP leaders. Sometimes he makes brief statements; other times he just smiles, as a sort of square-jawed presence on an otherwise humdrum tableau.

Thune hauls himself back to South Dakota with regularity, showing up at even the smaller fairs and parades. It has paid dividends. His popularity proved so high last year that when he ran for reelection, no Democrat filed against him.

"The simple reality is you can basically touch everybody in the state - and they damn near expect you to," Republican strategist Alex Vogel said. "People forget what it takes as a retail politician to get elected in South Dakota. That's a very similar skill set to what you need in New Hampshire and Iowa."

Before Thune gets to either of those states, he and his family have a decision to make. They've confronted choices like this before. In the sad months following his narrow loss to Johnson, Thune and his wife sat in their living room contemplating another Senate challenge, this time against a tougher opponent in the form of Daschle.

"She looked at me and she said, 'I'm not going through another campaign unless God himself comes to the door and says you have to run,' " Thune recalled in his CPAC speech.

"I probably do not think that is going to happen, honey," he said, drawing laughs from the audience.

But Kimberly Thune came around to the idea of another campaign. Running, she told her husband, "was not just about the winning. It was about the race."

"Of course, it was always about the winning," the senator said. "I was a competitor. I am in this to win. But she made a really important observation, ladies and gentlemen, that it is important to be in the race. It is important to be in the arena. It is important to be standing up and fighting for the things that we believe in. She was right then, and she is right now."

© 2011 The Washington Post Company