As Mitt Romney’s senior advisers consider their vice-presidential prospects, they’re keeping an eye on a dark horse: Senator John Thune, a lanky and telegenic South Dakota Republican. “Even though he’s not from a battleground state, he’s seen as serious and credible,” says John Sununu, a Romney confidant. “There’s no question, in my mind, that he’s on the list for consideration.”
“Very smart,” says Ed Rollins, Ronald Reagan’s former campaign manager, when asked about a potential Romney-Thune ticket. “He looks presidential and passes all the tests.”
Thune, the third-ranking Republican in the upper chamber, downplays the veep chatter, but it’s only likely to increase in the months ahead. According to sources close to the Romney campaign, the former Massachusetts governor may be inclined to tap a mild-mannered, business-friendly Midwestern senator.
Senator Rob Portman of Ohio is often cited as someone who fits that profile, but so does Thune, a 51-year-old native of rural Murdo, S.D., and an ally of Senator Mitch McConnell, the GOP leader. Thune briefly flirted with a presidential run last year, only to decide against it, but his interest in presidential politics remains. He’s eager to enter the fray — as a supporting player.
“It’s an even-money game,” Thune says, evaluating Romney’s chances. “For a while, everyone was hanging their heads about how things looked coming out of the primary, where scars and permanent damage were expected. But it’s amazing how quickly Governor Romney’s numbers have snapped back. It’s now a fair fight, and we have a legitimate shot at winning the presidency.”
Thune, who holds a master’s degree in business administration from the University of South Dakota, says one of Romney’s challenges will be to win over the swaths of the Rust Belt that President Obama swept four years ago. As the son of a schoolteacher and the grandson of a hardware-store owner, Thune says, he knows that “pocketbook issues,” more than anything, can be effective in wooing blue-collar voters.
“It’s all about jobs and the economy, and that’s Romney’s forte,” Thune says. Yet as the president pummels Romney for once managing the private-equity firm Bain Capital, Romney must respond assertively. “He’s got to highlight his experience in creating jobs,” Thune says. “There’s a real contrast between a business leader and a community organizer.”
Thune, a devout Christian, sees Romney’s economic experience as the Republican nominee’s best asset, but he also believes that Romney can make inroads among evangelicals. Those voters may not have been “completely sold” on Romney in the primary, but compared with President Obama, he’s by far the best choice in November, Thune says. “Evangelicals recognize that a second Obama term could be very dangerous, particularly with regard to the Supreme Court and regulations,” he explains.
Another factor Thune mentions is the “business-like way” in which Romney runs his campaign. Romney frequently reaches out to leaders on Capitol Hill, he says, and the relationships between key GOP players and the nominee are professional and open — a good omen for potential 2013 success should Romney win the White House. “His skill set would enable him to step in and get things done,” Thune says.