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Thune May Be Capitol’s 2012 Contender

While most of the 2012 GOP presidential buzz is focused on a group of former and soon-to-be-former governors, Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) is increasingly being viewed as the Capitol’s most likely White House contender.

The telegenic first-term Senator’s national profile is no doubt on the rise — as evidenced by his increased leadership role this Congress and extensive fundraising for his noncompetitive re-election race next year.

“I think the sky’s the limit for Sen. Thune in terms of what he wants to do,— National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman John Cornyn (Texas) said. “I think he’s certainly one of our most outstanding Members. For a party that always, I think, needs new talent particularly in the presidential circles, I think he would be a great addition.—

When asked about presidential aspirations, Thune said he was focused only on his re-election campaign — even though he has not attracted a single Democratic opponent so far. But Thune has undoubtably been more vocal and visible in recent weeks, appearing with some regularity on cable news shows and playing a key role in presenting the GOP response to Democrats’ health care legislation through his role as Republican Policy Committee chairman.

“I think part of it is just that we’re really trying to step up our messaging efforts with this health care issue,— Thune said. “It’s not so much me, but I think everybody is doing that. I think everybody’s trying to get out there more, trying to do everything we can to maximize.—

A true veteran of Capitol Hill, Thune worked as a staffer for former Sen. Jim Abdnor (R-S.D.), served in the House for three terms and most recently took over the Republican Policy Committee post from Sen. John Ensign (Nev.) this summer. Ensign was the only other often-mentioned potential White House contender on Capitol Hill, but he dropped any such aspirations and relinquished his leadership post in June when he admitted to having an extramarital affair.

During his time in the Senate, Thune has demonstrated that he can be politically savvy. His 2004 victory over then-Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) allowed him to amass an impressive Rolodex of donors across the country. With that in mind, he became a leading choice to head the NRSC for the 2008 cycle. But despite significant lobbying from his colleagues, Thune ultimately bowed out, making way for Ensign.

Thune’s official reasoning was that he wanted to focus on issues important to South Dakota. Republicans close to the lawmaker, however, have acknowledged that a major factor in his decision not to take the NRSC job were the bleak prospects Republicans were facing last cycle. According to these sources, Thune understood that with several GOP-held seats in swing states open and public sentiment turning hard against Republicans, it would at best be an uphill struggle to hold seats, let alone make gains against Democrats.

The South Dakota Republican, however, has done his part in fundraising for his colleagues this cycle. Thune has headlined events for other GOP Senate candidates, including former Rep. Pat Toomey (Pa.), Sen. Richard Burr (N.C.) and Rep. Roy Blunt (Mo.).

Even without a potential challenger on the horizon, Thune has maintained a torrid fundraising pace this fall and reported about $5.53 million in cash on hand at the end of September. The Senator has also cobbled together a top campaign staff and consulting team for his race.

Thune’s campaign manager, Justin Brasell, ran Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s (R-Ky.) re-election campaign in 2008 — a surprisingly competitive contest for the five-term Senator. Brasell was chief of staff for several years for Rep. Geoff Davis (R-Ky.) before managing McConnell’s race, then moving to South Dakota in January to run Thune’s bid and his political action committee.

Thune has also put together a top-notch national fundraising team, including finance director Angel Paulson, an alumna of the fundraising team at the Republican National Convention in 2008 and former chief of staff to Ann Romney during her husband’s White House campaign. Lisa Spies is serving as Thune’s Washington, D.C., fundraiser. Her husband, prominent D.C. attorney Charlie Spies, was chief financial officer and counsel for former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney’s (R) presidential campaign. Carla Eudy — a finance director for the presidential campaigns of Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and former Sen. Phil Gramm (R-Texas) ­— is also consulting on his bid.

But Thune’s 2004 campaign manager does not appear to be on board if the Senator makes the presidential leap in 2012. Dick Wadhams was considered a rising star in GOP operative circles when he orchestrated Thune’s victory over Daschle. Wadhams went on to manage then-Sen. George Allen’s (R-Va.) 2006 re-election campaign with hopes, according to other consultants, of eventually managing Allen’s presumed 2008 presidential campaign. Allen lost reelection, and Wadhams moved to run the state party in his home state of Colorado. When asked if he was still advising Thune, Wadhams said he was focused on races in Colorado and he did not remember the last time the two men spoke.

Two other former Thune aides are working for another White House hopeful — which some consider a sign that Thune is not actively pursuing a national bid. Former Thune spokesman Alex Conant now serves as communications director for Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s (R) PAC, while another former Thune adviser, Sara Taylor, has also signed on to the Minnesota governor’s operation. Pawlenty and Thune have a friendly relationship, and the Senator introduced him at an Oct. 2 event for South Dakota Republicans in Rapid City.

But two other key alumni of the 2004 campaign, media consultant Scott Howell and pollster Glen Bolger of Public Opinion Strategies, have signed on to the 2010 campaign and would likely continue with Thune if he ran on a national level. Bolger has been involved with polling for presidential candidates, and his colleague Bill McInturff did polling for McCain’s 2008 bid. Howell did some work for President George W. Bush’s 2004 race and took the lead on former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s (R) media during his failed 2008 bid.

Republican media consultant Fred Davis, who has worked on campaigns for several GOP presidential candidates, said it’s not uncommon for candidates looking to run at the national level to pick their consulting team during their Senate bids, although it’s often a risky move.

“You have to try to pick the horse unless you want to wait until the last minute,— Davis said. “There’s great comfort in signing on to someone early, but it takes you out.—

And rarely is a presidential campaign a secure venture for consultants. Before President Barack Obama’s victory last year, the last Senator to get elected to the White House was John F. Kennedy. The last Republican Senator to move to the White House was Warren G. Harding in 1921, although many GOP Senators have tried to make the transition to the presidency since then.

McCain has often said that if he looked like the telegenic Thune, he’d be president right now. But when asked what advice he could give Thune if he runs for president, the 2008 GOP nominee did not mince words.

“Don’t do what I did,— he quipped. “I lost.—

John Stanton contributed to this report.

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