If you ask John Thune if he wants to run for vice president, you get his best, “Aw-shucks, me?” routine.
The South Dakota Republican, in his second Senate term after three terms in the House, has been listed as a potential running mate for Mitt Romney. While Thune says he’s not pursuing the opportunity, he also doesn’t deny his availability.
“I’m not closing the door on anything,” he said in late June. “If you want to make a difference in public life, you don’t close doors.”
Thune, 51, rose to national prominence by defeating Tom Daschle for Senate in 2004. Daschle had served 26 years in Congress, was a three-term senator and was the Senate Democratic leader, including terms as majority leader.
Thune edged him in a close race, two years after losing a bitter Senate race to Democrat Tim Johnson, who became his colleague when he was elected to the Senate. In 2010, Thune wasn’t even opposed for a second term, as South Dakota Democrats said there was no point in trying to defeat him.
That allowed Thune to explore a run for the White House. He weighed it, talked it over with his wife Kimberley and their two daughters and checked into the mechanics. By February, Thune had decided not to run for the presidency, saying he could not raise enough money to contend.
But he campaigned with Romney in Iowa and has stayed in touch with the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, including an appearance at Romney's Park City, Utah, event for potential running mates and supporters. Thune said he didn't view the event as "an audition," but was glad to be invited.
What makes him a Republican star? Thune looks good on the campaign trail. He’s tall, lean and has an open, friendly smile on his lean, tanned face. The son of a high school and college basketball star, Thune starred in all sports at tiny Murdo High School in western South Dakota, and played hoops at BIOLA College, also known as the Bible Institute of Los Angeles.
He has repeatedly said he would welcome a chance to match his game with another well-known hoopster, President Obama. Thune is also an avid runner.
He’s deeply conservative on social issues and the military, opposing abortion, gay marriage and allowing gays to openly serve in the military while also supporting American interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Thune is also an avowed budget hawk, continually calling for sharp reductions in spending. He has said the government is leading the country into potentially serious trouble with free-spending policies.
However, Thune has supported government funding and supported ethanol and wind energy, both popular stances in his home state. He also worked with other South Dakota politicians of both parties to keep Ellsworth Air Force Base, located near Rapid City, open when the Pentagon sought to shut it down.
In 2008, Sen. John McCain listed Thune as a potential running mate. Thune said he felt he was a longshot at best, even when McCain toured South Dakota and spoke of Thune’s qualification for the assignment. In the end, McCain chose another telegenic, if little-known conservative, Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, as his running mate.
This year, will Thune be largely anonymous figure elevated to the national stage?
Tom Lawrence has covered South Dakota politics since 1980. He is the assistant editor of The Daily Republic in Mitchell, S.D.