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John Thune: A Star Is Born

When South Dakota Sen.-elect John Thune (R) ran into Kansas Sen. Pat Roberts (R) on Monday, the elder Senator ate a bit of crow.

“I’m so glad you didn’t listen to me,” Roberts told Thune. “I told you there was no way you could beat Tom Daschle.”

Thune did just that on Nov. 2, winning a 51 percent to 49 percent victory over Daschle, in the process becoming the first challenger in 52 years to knock off a sitting Senate leader.

Just two weeks removed from that high-profile race, Thune is in Washington this week for freshman orientation and hopefully a bit of bridge-building.

Thune is regularly touted as a hero among his Republican colleagues for “knocking off the Democrats’ chief architect of obstruction and filibustering,” in the words of National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman George Allen (Va.).

One high-level Republican strategist added that Thune’s “courage to run against an extremely able and effective leader” has earned him “a lifetime of gratitude from the faithful.”

Thune acknowledges, however, that not everyone in the Senate has greeted him with open arms.

“I think it’s hard for some of these people and I think it is going to take a little bit of time,” he said in an interview Tuesday.

On Sunday night, Thune spoke with Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (Nev.), a close confidant of Daschle’s. The South Dakotan described the new party head as “very gracious.”

Thune said he has also spent a considerable amount of time over the past few days with Arkansas Sen. Mark Pryor (D) as well as with fellow Sens.-elect Barack Obama (D-Ill.) and Ken Salazar (D-Colo.).

“Some of these Members that haven’t been around as long and haven’t served with Daschle as long are more open and receptive to developing some of these across-party-lines relationships,” Thune said.

As for the old Democratic bulls, Thune said he takes inspiration from a story Delaware Sen. Tom Carper (D) told at a breakfast for new Members earlier this week.

After defeating longtime Sen. Bill Roth (R-Del.) in 2000, Carper said he got a cool reception from several of Roth’s close friends, including Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), Roth’s successor as Finance chairman, and Appropriations Chairman Ted Stevens (R-Alaska).

Over time, though, as Stevens and Grassley got to know him personally, they warmed up, Carper said.

“I believe that I am the type of person and personality that that will happen [to],” Thune predicted.

Regardless of how his new colleagues react, Thune has already been accepted with open arms by the media as a new national spokesman for Republicans.

On Nov. 10 alone, Thune appeared on CNBC and CNN twice (“Paula Zahn Now” and “Lou Dobbs Tonight”) to discuss topics ranging from judicial nominations to the budget.

He also was a guest of George Stephanopoulos on “This Week” Nov. 7, appearing with Obama, who is arguably the only Senator-elect to eclipse Thune in press attention.

Thune, however, makes a point of downplaying talk of his status as a budding media darling, insisting that much of the attention is a result of “who I was running against.”

“The profile of this race generated some additional attention, and we are trying to use that in a way that enables us to serve the interests we believe in and the agenda we want to move,” Thune said.

Some Democratic insiders argue that with Thune not likely to face a serious re-election race again in his career, he will quickly disappear to the back bench once the election afterglow wears off.

Still, Thune has clearly demonstrated a savvy understanding of the media and how best to present a conservative message.

“Demeanor is important,” said Thune. “You can be a right-of-center conservative with a conservative message, but how you communicate that is important.”

Other Republicans agree that Thune’s communication skills are uniquely suited to pushing the Republican agenda in the media.

“John is very articulate,” said Rep. Tom Osborne (R-Neb.), a Thune confidant. “He will be a great asset in the Senate.”

Allen added that Thune’s debate performances against Daschle showcased his talent for rhetorical repartee.

“He held his own against Tom Daschle who knows all these procedures and is very knowledgeable about the workings of the Senate,” the Virginia Senator said.

Thune’s path to the Senate was not an easy one.

After holding on to the state’s at-large House seat from 1996 to 2002, Thune was preparing for a shot at the state’s open governorship when he was convinced by President Bush to take on Sen. Tim Johnson (D).

Despite leading in public and private polling for the entire race, Thune lost the only poll that mattered, coming up 524 votes short on Election Day.

He immediately jumped to the top of Republican wish lists to take on Daschle, who was viewed as vulnerable due to the incongruity of his role as leader of the national Democratic Party in a state that strongly leans Republican.

After passing on a chance to run in a special election to reclaim his old House seat, Thune finally made his candidacy official in early January.

Although Daschle had been on television with ads touting his accomplishments since the summer of 2003, Thune held his powder, running his first ad almost a year later.

“Waiting was smart,” said Thune. “They wanted to draw me into a long, drawn-out fight but there was a lot of value in waiting and running a different-paced race.”

Looking ahead, Thune said his committees of choice are Appropriations and Finance. But he acknowledges that other Senators crave those assignments as well. “I have been told you can have anything but that,” Thune said with a laugh.

As for his own political future, Thune says that he does not covet Senate leadership or the presidency, though he did not rule out bids for either post.

“I want to be positioned to be effective for South Dakota and give voice on a national level to some of the things I believe in,” he said.

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