Thune moves on Ensign leadership spot

Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) is maneuvering for the leadership opening left by Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.), who resigned the position a day after admitting to an affair with a campaign staffer.

Thune’s office confirmed the senator has begun making phone calls to leadership and to rank-and-file senators to tell them he will run for Republican Policy Committee chairman.

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Thune's ascent to the No. 4 spot in Senate Republican leadership is all but assured, as no other candidate has stepped forward to challenge him.

Sources say the only possible contender for the Policy Committee slot would have been Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), who just took over as ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee. In the 112th Congress, Sessions has secured promises that he will be named the top Republican on the Budget Committee, essentially pulling him out of contention for the leadership post.

Ensign resigned his leadership spot Wednesday , a day after he admitted his affair with a campaign staffer.

A member of the Senate Republican leadership said that Ensign could have held on to his chairmanship of the Policy Committee but would not have risen much higher in the party, describing Ensign’s presidential ambitions as "eliminated."

"I don't think it would have had an effect because he is well-liked and respected for his substance," said the lawmaker, who requested anonymity to discuss the sensitive topic.

The GOP lawmaker also said that Ensign could one day become assistant Republican leader, a post now held by Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), but predicted that it would be difficult for Ensign ever to become GOP leader.

"We want our leader to be a spokesman and not an issue himself,” the lawmaker said.

While Ensign’s White House dreams are likely over, Thune's interest in national politics is beginning to emerge.

Thune, seen as a rising star in GOP ranks, had served as vice chairman of the Senate Republican Conference. In that post, Thune had the opportunity to reach out to conservative groups around Washington, most recently in hopes of rousing opposition to Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor.

Last week, Thune's campaign put up a website — SupremeCourtWatchOnline.com — that he hopes will serve as a clearinghouse for conservative news on Sotomayor's nomination. The site has the side benefit of building Thune's database of potential donors in advance of his 2010 run for a second term and a potential 2012 presidential campaign.

Thune's campaign, which already has more than $4.3 million in the bank, has also sought to increase his involvement in Republican opposition to the Employee Free Choice Act and the so-called Fairness Doctrine, two measures that engender loud protests from the Republican base.

If Thune does ascend to the top slot, Senate Republican strategists say, a battle is likely to emerge for his post as vice chairman. Sens. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) and Richard Burr (R-N.C.) are mentioned as potential candidates.

Murkowski's office confirmed Wednesday that the first-term Alaska senator would run for the vice chairman's position but Burr's office declined to say whether the senator was in the running.

Alexander Bolton contributed to this article.

-- This article was updated at 4:46 p.m.