Sen. Thune advises distancing from president on the Iraq war

GOP candidates should distance themselves both from the Democrats and from the Republican president on Iraq policy in the midterm election, according to the likely next chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC).

Sen. John Thune, a fundraising star since his successful 2004 campaign against then-Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S-D.), said yesterday that Republicans will benefit from Democratic divisions on national security but encouraged GOP candidates to clarify where they disagree with President Bush’s prosecution of the war.

“I would point those out and highlight them,” he told reporters at a National Press Club breakfast.

Thune’s views are important because he is widely seen as the probable choice to head Senate Republicans’ campaign arm in the 2008 election cycle. He has told Republican leaders that he will make a decision on seeking the job either just before or just after the August recess.

“For sure by Labor Day,” he said.

No other Republican candidates have come forward publicly, and several GOP senators said yesterday that they did not know of any under-the-radar campaigns.

The NRSC has lagged behind its counterpart, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, in this cycle. The DSCC raised $64.2 million and had $33.5 million left at the end of May, compared to the NRSC’s $57.8 million and $18.3 million.

The chairwoman, Sen. Elizabeth Dole (R-N.C.), and her rival for the job two years ago, Sen. Norm Coleman (R-Minn.), must defend their own seats in 2008.

Thune, who has been traveling the country to raise money for colleagues and Republican challengers, has collected more than $1.3 million for his Heartland Values Political Action Committee and donated more than $100,000 to Senate colleagues.

But if Thune becomes chairman of the campaign committee, it might be a result of an effort to draft him among a set of freshman senators with little interest in the job.

“You’d have to be crazy to want that,” said Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.).

Republicans are slated to defend 21 Senate seats in 2008, while the Democrats will have to defend only 12. The job would be highly risky for Thune, a rising star who could be tarnished by any electoral losses.

He burnished his reputation as a campaigner last year with a successful bid to keep South Dakota’s Ellsworth Air Force Base open despite the Pentagon’s recommendation that it be closed.

But the episode underscores another pitfall that might accompany a turn at the helm of a national party committee. Thune portrayed Daschle as too close to national Democrats and distant from South Dakotans, a theme that could be turned against Thune by a future challenger if he spends two years focused on campaigns in other states.

The unrelenting fundraising schedule is another drawback.

“Personally, it’s a very taxing job,” said Sen. David Vitter (R-La.).

A 2002 campaign-finance law abolishing “soft money” donations, unlimited contributions from entities such as companies and labor unions to party committees, has transformed the nature of the chairmanship, making it “a lot less fun and a lot more work,” Thune said. That would be compounded by having to defend 21 seats and having to fight for dollars in a presidential election year.

Thune said he has had “serious conversations” with family and staff about chairing the NRSC. He spoke with ease yesterday about several competitive Senate races across the country and even sought to add Nebraska, where Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) is favored to win reelection, to the list.

But he conceded that Republicans are having trouble in Florida, where Rep. Katherine Harris has little traction in her campaign to oust Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson.

“It should be a very competitive race. It should be,” Thune said. “It is regrettable that it hasn’t evolved yet.”

Richard Burr (R-N.C.) is the only other senator whose name surfaced as a possible contender for the committee chairmanship in interviews with senators yesterday.

“I’m hopeful a consensus will develop around John Thune,” Burr said. “I’m a policy junkie.”

Thune, an Armed Services Committee member who has supported the president on Iraq, said voters would reward the GOP for having a unified message on national security.

“They see [Republicans] as willing to do what it takes to win” and Democrats as “perhaps not as committed to winning,” he said.

But he said that the Iraq war has been the biggest drag on Bush’s popularity and that Republican candidates should not shy away from issues on which there is daylight between them and the president.

“You don’t obviously embrace at every opportunity the president or his agenda,” Thune said.