GOP Veepstakes: Why Thune’s ‘Bland Ambition’ Shines
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The Fiscal Times
June 20, 2012

Sen. John Thune of South Dakota is not exactly a Republican vice presidential aspirant out of Central Casting.

He doesn’t represent a key battleground state that he could help deliver for Mitt Romney in November. His good looks aside, he would do little to attract independent women to the ticket because of his conservative social views. He offers no exceptional expertise on foreign policy or international economics, as do some of his rivals.

As a white politician from a largely rural upper Midwestern state, Thune has little standing with minorities or union members. And some analysts, political scientist s and historians damn him with faint praise by using terms like low-key, safe and unflappable.

Yet the 51-year-old former House member and political operative is highly articulate and an impressive campaigner who rocked the political world in 2004 by ousting  former Senate Democratic Majority Leader Tom Daschle with the help of the Bush White House. As a rising star in the Senate Republican leadership ranks, Thune helped bridge differences between his party’s conservative and moderate wings, and occasionally reached out to Democrats. Many experts agree that while he never served as a governor or chief executive, Thune has had enough experience in Congress and government to step in as   president if necessary.

“He basically passes the, ‘Could you see this person as president?’ muster,” said Jon Schaff, a political  science professor at Northern State university in Aberdeen, S.D. “He is capable of making what is basically a partisan or ideological point without sounding partisan and ideological."

For now, at least, Thune seems very much like a second tier contender to become Romney's running mate. There are, after all, bigger names such as New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio, Gov. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan of Wisconsin and others.

Despite reports to the contrary, the Romney camp says that Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., is also being vetted as a possible vice presidential candidate. In April, Rubio signaled that he would decline an opportunity to be vice president even if Romney needed him to compete for the position. 

As a senator from a dyed in the wool red state, Thune doesn’t have a big block of electoral votes he could deliver for Romney, as does Portman or Ryan, for example.

But some political experts argue that Thune’s exceptional political skills, his seemingly spotless political record and his fluidity in articulating and defending the Republicans’ economic and political agenda would greatly strengthen the less sure-footed Romney.

“If the Republican Party was a baseball team, John Thune would be a good utility ballplayer: Put him in any position and he’ll perform well,” Ronald Reagan biographer Craig Shirley told The Fiscal Times. “Among all the possible VP picks, he’s probably the one with the least objections. He’s a safe pick. A solid guy. A sterling character, by all accounts. And he wouldn’t overshadow Romney, which is a very big consideration. ”  

“This election is about the economy and the incumbent's performance on that score, as long as Romney doesn't make the election about himself,” said University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato. “By nature, Romney is vanilla. His ticket should be a double-dip cone of vanilla. …Thune is experienced, careful, mediagenic -- all qualities Romney would like,” Sabato added.

Thune's rugged good looks and political talents have helped him to rise to prominence as a conservative hero after defeating Daschle, who was long a powerful and popular figure in South Dakota politics and an acerbic critic of President George W. Bush. Once he made it to the Senate, Thune demonstrated his political skills by leading a bipartisan effort to block the planned closure of Ellsworth Air Force Base, which was vital to the state’s economy. He then quickly moved through a series of GOP leadership roles and now is positioning himself for a possible spot on the 2012 Republican ticket or a higher post in the Senate leadership.

Washington Editor and D.C. Bureau Chief Eric Pianin is a veteran journalist who has covered the federal government, congressional budget and tax issues, and national politics. He spent over 25 years at The Washington Post.