John Thune rising: GOP senator on Romney's veepstakes and his future

Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) has reemerged as a viable vice presidential candidate who would check many of the boxes Mitt Romney is looking for in a running mate.

He’s an experienced legislator who has earned respect from both parties in Congress, and if he didn’t end up in a Romney cabinet many think he could one day become the Republican leader in the Senate.

In an interview with The Hill, Thune acknowledged he’s been to Boston to meet Romney’s senior advisers and has met Beth Myers, who is leading the search for the vice presidential nominee.

“I met her but it wasn’t a meeting about what you think it’s about,” he said.

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Thune will no longer say whether he is being vetted, a telling distinction from a month ago when he freely admitted to The Hill that no one from Romney’s vetting team had contacted him. 

Talk of Thune’s national political ambitions had receded to the point of nearly vanishing until June, when he was invited along with other potential running mates to an exclusive retreat the Romney campaign hosted with its biggest donors in Park City, Utah.

Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice won headlines during the event for a speech that, according to some reports, has catapulted her to frontrunner status in Romney’s consideration.



But it also reignited some talk about Thune.

Republicans see plenty of upsides -— but also some downsides — to Thune joining Romney’s ticket.

A tenacious campaigner, Thune lost a Senate bid in 2002 only to come back two years later to win a fight against a tougher opponent.

Tall and telegenic — he ranked ninth in The Hill’s 2005 Most Beautiful list — Thune has been seen as a rising star with unlimited political potential ever since that South Dakota victory over then-Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle in 2004.

Iowa’s senior Sen. Chuck Grassley (R) said putting Thune on the ticket could be the difference in Iowa, which Obama carried in 2008. It could also help Romney in upper Midwestern battlegrounds such as Wisconsin, he said.

“He’s got a good following, particularly in the conservative part of Iowa, the western third. He did a lot of work in the caucuses for Romney,” said Grassley. “If Iowa is a battleground state and Wisconsin is in play, he’d be a good candidate. He makes a good presentation.”

Romney considered Thune an important asset in Iowa, a state that posed an obstacle to his campaign early on.

Thune was pressed to move up his endorsement of Romney to November to fend off Newt Gingrich, who was then surging in the polls.

“They said: ‘The caucuses are four weeks away, five weeks away. If you’re going to do this, do it at a point [when] it really matters,’ ” Thune recalled. 

Thune also has a special ability to excite conservative pundits and grassroots activists, along with a plainspoken way of delivering a conservative message.

He was raised by devoutly Christian parents in an 800-square-foot home in Murdo, S.D. -— a town of fewer than 500 people — and can relate to the average American a lot better than most of his Senate colleagues.

Two years ago, Thune was considered a hot prospect to challenge President Obama. 

Ultimately, Thune decided against taking the leap because he questioned whether he could raise enough money. He also worried about paying short shrift to his Senate duties while consumed by the “24/7” intensity of a presidential campaign.

“There were a lot of things I weighed in terms of just the demands of running a campaign full-time and being able to continue to effectively serve South Dakota in the Senate, and then spending so much time raising money and then [wondering] whether or not we would be able to pull the resources together to run what I thought was going to be an effective campaign,” he said.

One lawmaker who supports Romney said Thune’s eight-year Senate voting record could pose problems.

He could face criticism for supporting the 2008 Wall Street bailout and defending Congress’s tradition of earmarking funds.

Thune calls himself a “reformed” earmarker who supports current bans on parochial spending projects.

“Up until recent years that was the way in which you, through the appropriations process, made sure your state’s interests were addressed,” he said.

He regrets how the Wall Street bailout funds were used but feels lawmakers had little alternative.

“At the time I don’t think we had any choice. When you have the president, and the secretary of the Treasury, and the chairman of the Federal Reserve board coming to tell you ‘if you don’t do something the economy is going to melt down, credit markets are going to freeze up,’ you take it pretty seriously,” he said.

Thune rejects the characterization of a colleague who described him as “cautious” — not usually a compliment in politics — in explaining why he might avoid challenging Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) for the No. 2 job in the Senate Republican leadership. Cornyn is the only declared candidate for retiring Sen. Jon Kyl’s (R-Ariz.) job for now.

“I’m serious. I’m thoughtful. I don’t rush into things,” Thune said. “I’m deliberative. Perhaps that can be confused with being cautious.”

But then the senator fires back: “There aren’t very many people I know of who ran against incumbent Democrats in back-to-back elections for the United States Senate. You have to be fairly decisive and willing to attack and willing to go on offense,” he said.

Thune lost a close race in 2002 to Sen. Tim Johnson (D-S.D.) before licking his wounds and winning two years later against Daschle, a victory that showed tenacity and determination.

Thune has been aiding Romney since Iowa by helping him avoid policy battles with conservatives in Congress. 

He persuaded Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) to take a formal role in coordinating Senate and House conservatives with the Romney campaign. As chairman of the Senate GOP conference, Thune delivers a presentation to colleagues every Tuesday at lunch.

Each week he updates and circulates a document outlining how the economy has declined since Obama’s inauguration. It tracks rises in unemployment, gas prices, college tuition and food stamps and drops in income, home values and U.S. competitiveness.

Thune took over the job of conference chairman at a sensitive time, when relations between the Senate GOP leadership and House Republican conservatives were at their lowest point of the 112th Congress. 

When Thune succeeded Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) in late January, House conservatives were still fuming over the deal Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) cut with Democrats in December to extend the payroll tax for two months.

Relations between Senate and House Republicans have steadily improved since then and the meetings presided over by Johnson have shored up lines of communication.

For Thune, a standout basketball player in high school, the team comes first. 

And if Romney’s team needs an attack dog on the ticket, Thune could do that job effectively. 

“I’m not somebody whose disposition and temperament is hostile. But once somebody throws the first punch, I’m all in,” he said.

This story was updated at 12:30 p.m.

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