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Dakota Dreaming

The presidential hopes of John Thune.

Oct 4, 2010, Vol. 16, No. 03 • By STEPHEN F. HAYES
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Murdo, South Dakota

Dakota Dreaming

Photo Credit: Newscom

John Thune leaned forward, peered out of the small window in the 9-seat King Air 200, extended his index finger, and smiled. 

“That’s the Murdo airport right there.” 

We’d been flying over the plains of the senator’s home state of South Dakota for about 45 minutes, and the rapidly approaching ground was green and relatively flat—much of it carved into precision-cut rectangles, like football fields for giants. There was a small cluster of buildings in the distance where two freeways crossed. 

But no airport. 

Thune once again looked out. “We used to run track on that airstrip,” he said. And there, finally, a short distance south of the intersection, was a long strip of pavement in the middle of a field that was itself in the middle of fields that stretched for miles to the south, the east, and the west. Although formally named the Murdo Municipal Airport, it is not an airport as most people understand the term. It’s more like a long driveway from nowhere to nowhere. The airstrip is used an average of 38 times each month. Pilots are warned to watch for wildlife on the runway.

Thune had spent much of the flight chatting with aides, affixing his signature to dozens of letters with his name and office embossed in red-white-and-blue across the top. The first leg of the trip had taken us from his home in Sioux Falls to the Rosebud Indian reservation, where he met with tribal leaders to discuss law enforcement. The reservation is a depressing place. With unemployment at almost 85 percent, despair is pervasive. Thune has concentrated his efforts on funding a law enforcement approach based on the “broken windows” theory of policing that has proven successful in communities across the country. It seems to be working slowly here. Still, it’s hoping against history. Now, as he approaches his hometown, Thune is relaxed. 

“We used to run 2.2 miles from school to the airport and then we’d start practice,” Thune said, in an entirely believable modern version of the walked-uphill-through-snow tales of youthful hardship. Thune and his teammates would wait at one end of the airstrip as their coach walked to the other end to give them the signal. But when their coach—Jerry Applebee—had his back turned, they’d all shuffle forward as fast as their feet would take them to get a little head start. 

Thune stays in touch with “Coach App,” who was waiting in his brand new Ford F-150 to pick Thune up when our plane arrived. After a firm handshake, Thune told the coach, now retired, about our conversation.

“I was telling these guys how when you used to go way down to one end, we’d sneak up when you weren’t looking,” Thune said. 

Coach App looked genuinely surprised. “You did?”

Thune laughed an easy laugh. “I never told you that?” 

It’s a short drive into town. A green sign announces that Murdo’s population is 679—or at least it was at the last census. It is the seat of Jones County, where there is close to one square mile for each of the 1,193 residents. 

This is where John Thune spent the first 18 years of his life. “When I was growing up, my horizons—the world—kind of began and ended at the city limits of Murdo.” It’s a bigger world now.

John Thune is likely to run for president in 2012. If he wins the nomination, it will be because he is an exceptionally skilled retail politician who can communicate a kind of midwestern, common sense conservatism that is ascendant in reaction to liberal profligacy. It will be because of skills and values he learned in Murdo. 

It also helps that he’s cultivated the nationwide donor base that gave him $14.5 million to defeat Tom Daschle in 2004. And that South Dakota borders Iowa. And that he’s good on television. And that he’s a devout Christian who can quote Scripture without seeming to proselytize. 

“I think he’s the complete package and is the kind of person who could conceivably go the distance in a race for the presidency,” says Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell. “I think he’s an extraordinary talent, and I hope that he will run and win.” 

But there are many obstacles. He has virtually no national profile. He worked briefly as a lobbyist. He voted for TARP. He is a defender of earmarks. He would be running against Washington from Washington.

Several people close to the senator say they would be surprised if he chose not to run, and Thune allows that he’s thinking about it seriously enough that he’s gamed out his “pathway to get there,” calculated the amount of money it would take to be competitive in early primaries, and even thought about the timing of an announcement. He thinks his family would be on board. “I’m taking a very full look at it,” he says.

And why not. The Republican field is wide open. And Obama is vulnerable.

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