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

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By Philip Rucker
Friday, February 18, 2011

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.


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