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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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Thune is a tough critic of the president. He says Obama is “out of his element” on national security issues and the war on terror, and “doesn’t get” America’s history of economic freedom. “I think that is why a lot of Americans are becoming increasingly skeptical about his leadership and his overall philosophy of what America could and should be in the next decade and this century.” 

I spent time with Thune in a variety of settings over the course of several weeks this summer, both in Washington and in South Dakota. And regardless of the situation—in meetings with the military on Capitol Hill, at a political fundraiser in a wealthy Washington suburb, eating French toast at his home in Sioux Falls, touring jails on an Indian reservation, talking to farmers at Dakota-Fest, chatting with his staff over dinner, meeting with GOP activists at a county fair—he was always the same guy. That is a rare quality in today’s crop of national elected officials. He does not appeal to blue collar voters one day and disparage them the next as clinging to their guns and their religion. 

On July 28, Thune made the short trip from Capitol Hill to suburban McLean, where he was the speaker at a fundraiser for the Virginia Republican party. Prospective presidential candidates spend a lot of their time doing precisely this kind of event, and Thune’s calendar over the late summer was filled with them. He went to Pennsylvania, Ohio, Minnesota, Arkansas, and California, among others.

The senator arrived in a tan Ford explorer at the Hilton McLean Tysons Corner a few minutes before his scheduled appearance. He walked into the lobby wearing a black pinstriped suit, a crisply pressed white shirt, and a solid red tie. His hair, parted on the right, was neatly combed to the side, held in place by a hair product that keeps it looking slightly wet for hours. 

After some small talk about football in the lobby, he heads to the reception. Dave Rexrode, the executive director of the Virginia GOP, greets him outside the small meeting room and introduces himself. The two men chit-chat—Thune once served as the executive director of the South Dakota Republican party—and then the senator joins the growing beer-and-wine reception. 

He is masterful in such settings, greeting contributors with exactly the right level of enthusiasm—conveying interest in the new acquaintance but without the cloying obsequiousness of overeager vote-seekers. Thune is smooth, but not slick. He’s the Ernie Els of politics, the Big Easy.

Thune slips into the middle of a conversation, introducing himself unobtrusively. “I’m John,” he says and then listens for a couple of minutes as the discussants explain what’s wrong with politics today. When another man approaches to greet him, Thune steps back, extends an arm to guide him into the previously closed circle, and glances at his nametag. “Daniel, how are you?” It doesn’t come off as forced or fake, but easy and natural.

After 20 minutes mingling with Virginia Republicans—who paid $500 each for the opportunity—it is Thune’s turn to speak. “Can you all hear me if I stand right here?” Thune says, positioning himself in front of the podium. He slides his hands in his pockets and begins his speech with a story about his greatest political triumph.

It was 2003, shortly after he had lost his challenge to South Dakota senator Tim Johnson by 524 votes and at a time when he was contemplating a challenge to then-Senate minority leader Tom Daschle. “I was sitting with my wife, Kimberley, and I told her that I’m not going to go through another campaign unless God himself walks through that door,” he said. “And that’s not likely.” 

God, he explained, did not show up. “But George Allen walked through that door,” he said to laughter, and the former Virginia senator worked hard to convince Thune to take on Daschle. After a family vote—it was 3-to-1 with the prospective candidate casting the no vote—he agreed to run. Thune took the audience through his David-and-Goliath battle against Daschle and the Washington establishment, concluding with a paean to grassroots activism. 

He transitioned to last year’s race for governor in Virginia and suggested that by focusing on a narrow agenda—jobs and the economy—Bob McDonnell’s successful campaign gave Republicans a “good page for us to read for November. We need to stay focused.” 

Thune spoke without notes for another 15 minutes on the Republican economic agenda. The first issue: jobs. “We need to be creating jobs. And you don’t do that by expanding government, you do that by expanding the economy.” He decried government ownership of auto manufacturers, insurance companies, and banks.

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