As he settles into a high-backed chair in his private Senate office, John Thune tells me that if he jumps into the 2012 presidential race, he will be in it to win it — no test-run for 2016, no show-horse spectacle. “The reason you do it is that you really believe that the future is now,” he says. “I believe that.”
For months, the South Dakota Republican has been on the fence, weighing the pros and cons of a White House bid. Now, in the ides of February, the 50-year-old father of two is in the “final stages” of the decision-making process. “It is a gut-level decision,” he says. “We are getting closer to making it.”
As Thune eyes President Obama’s continued push to increase the size and power of government, he hints that the “damage” the administration could inflict in a second term is “motivation enough” for anyone looking to mount a challenge.
Over the weekend, Thune gave a crackling speech to the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington. Although he finished in the lower tier of the event’s straw poll, he did stir activists to pay attention to a fresh face. He spoke movingly about his family’s immigrant history and his Midwestern values. He also poked a little fun at his own comparative anonymity on the national stage.
“It’s fair to say that I don’t have the same national name recognition as some of my more famous Republican colleagues,” Thune mused. “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.”
Thune knows that a presidential bid would be an uphill climb for a little-known senator. Yet he sees ample opportunity next year for a new GOP voice to emerge — and to win. As he put it at CPAC, “I’m betting that 2012 is going to be the year when we not only take back the Senate, but also the White House.”
The tall, rail-thin senator, who starred on the basketball court at Murdo High School, likes to frame the upcoming contest in sports terms. “If I run, I would be on offense,” he says with a grin. “I am not afraid of a fight. If I get into this, it’s something I get into with all of my heart.”
“As Republican voters think about who they want to nominate, it really ought to come down to which candidate can defeat President Obama,” he says. “It really comes down to match-ups. Sometimes you have a very talented group of athletes. But at the end of the day, it comes down to who matches up best against your opponent.
“That’s the reason the Lakers have a hard time against the Celtics,” Thune chuckles. “They have a hard time guarding certain people; they have a hard time guarding Kevin Garnett. There are simply teams that match up better against other teams.” Voters, he predicts, are going to have to play strategist, coalescing around the “most conservative, most electable” candidate.
As he surveys the field, Thune sees many familiar names, many leaders he admires. “It will be a challenge for any candidate this year, with the crowded field on the Republican side, for someone to break out,” he admits. “So how you differentiate yourself, how you define yourself, in early states in particular, will be important.” Thune, for his part, has not traveled much to Iowa and New Hampshire in the past year, mostly because he does not like to generate endless buzz.
Thune thinks he would present a “great contrast” to Obama in terms of political philosophy. He also believes that in terms of temperament and drive, he would stack up nicely against his fellow hoops-loving (former) Midwestern senator. “When it comes to age and energy, all those sorts of things, I think it could be a great match-up.”
Of course, Thune would have to win a primary first, and many of his past votes — he backed the Troubled Asset Relief Program and has carved out numerous earmarks for South Dakota — would come under scrutiny.
Thune, however, welcomes the debate about his record. “Look, I’ve got votes out there that the Tea Party is going to take issue with,” he says. “My conservative credentials are probably not going to be satisfactory to this particular crowd or that particular crowd. But if you look at the totality of my record, you’ve got someone who is an economic, national security, and social conservative.”
“There is an assumption that being from the Senate is a liability,” he continues. “I’m not going to overlook the fact that people hate Washington. But I also think, in this day and age, that people make their decisions very differently from how they did in the past. It is not always about who is up next or disqualifying someone because he happens to be from the Senate.”
In fact, Thune predicts that even in a primary season full of anti-Beltway fervor, a senator could rise. “There is an argument to be made that we need somebody who has been in the trenches, who has been in there fighting, who has been in there standing up to the Obama agenda,” he says. A senator who has earned his political battle stripes tangling with Obamacare and the stimulus “knows where all the bodies are buried.”
A Thune 2012 campaign, if his decision is to kick it into gear, would frame an austere fiscal message around a “Happy Warrior” theme. Thune greatly admires Ronald Reagan and says the Republican message, “at its core, remains an optimistic one.” As in his CPAC address, which was in effect a test-run stump speech, he would hammer Obama on health care, the debt, energy, and defense-budget cuts.
But don’t get too excited. Those close to Thune point out that staying in the Senate would have its advantages. He is relatively young and widely admired by the Senate GOP brass. By all accounts, he has had a strong run as chairman of the Republican Policy Committee. As committee assignments were juggled in the new Congress, he also snagged places on the Finance and Budget Committees — two plum spots for an up-and-comer.
“I do not have any delusions about how hard it would be to come out of a Republican primary,” Thune replies, when I raise the issue. “That’s why the decision is such a weighty one. My job here, with the new committee assignments, will be very busy and challenging.”
Still, Thune is undeniably a man with national ambitions. Everything from his long-stepped stride to his love of Lincoln and Reagan reveals a man eager to move forward, a player itching to take the ball. In 2004, he toppled Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle. Seven years later, his appetite for the “big win” has not subsided.
As he gazes out his window, where a blue sky spreads over the sprawling capital, Thune rehearses the questions everyone will be asking: “Do you have something you need to contribute, something you need to offer? Do you have a burning desire and passion to do something for the American people? In other words, do you have the fire in your belly to get out there and really mix it up?”
For John Thune, the answer to those questions is clear; a presidential run, less so.
— Robert Costa is a political reporter for National Review.