Thune Will Announce 2012 Plans This Month

Sen. John Thune could be a formidable foe for Obama.

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Republican South Dakota Sen. John Thune, expected to be popular among conservative voters in the GOP presidential primaries, will announce his plans by the end of the month, sources say. If he decides to get into the race, he would be the first to officially announce, likely speeding the announcements of several others on the verge of running like Mitt Romney, Sarah Palin, and Mike Huckabee. [ See a slide show on 10 GOP frontrunners for 2012.]

By getting in now Thune would have an early edge on the others in fundraising and hiring of staff. President Obama hasn't announced his plans yet, but he is setting up a campaign staff in Chicago and has started to reach out more to supporters through his Organizing for America operation at the Democratic National Committee.

Recent stories have suggested that Thune won't run, but even his closest associates say that no decision has been made. If he doesn't get into the presidential race, associates say that he will jump into the battle to replace Sen. Jon Kyl as the Senate Republican whip, the No. 2 position in GOP leadership. That race is beginning to look like a battle royale among the top GOP leaders in the Senate.

University of Virginia director of politics Larry Sabato says Thune has advantages others expected to get into the race don't. On his political crystal ball web page, he says:

This picture–perfect, made–for–TV politician has a lot of experience to back up his good looks. Having been involved in politics and government since the 1980s, Thune has made a career of service in both houses of Congress. Thune served in the House from 1996 to 2002, when he mounted an unsuccessful campaign to unseat Democratic Sen. Tim Johnson. It was a nail biter, decided by about 500 votes out of over 330,000 cast. Undeterred, Thune turned right around and challenged Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D) in 2004, and defeated Daschle by about 4,500 votes. This victory made Thune a giant–killer, and it was a headliner race around the nation, and one of the most expensive. Remarkably, Thune ran unopposed for reelection in 2010, and thus he is tanned, rested, and ready should he decide to run in 2012. South Dakota is a small base from which to launch a presidential campaign, though that didn't stop George McGovern. One advantage is that Iowa is nearby, and Thune would have to do well in Iowa to survive and fight in other states. Thune knows he will be an asterisk in the polls unless and until he wins a major caucus or primary state, and it is still uncertain whether he will run at all. Should the planets and stars align for Thune in the GOP process, however, he has the potential to be a formidable foe for President Obama.

Run or not for president, Thune will still be in a long campaign for higher office should he seek the Senate whip job.

Early expectations yesterday that the current leaders would simply move up a spot have blown up and now the three top Republicans after Mitch McConnell are promising to vie for the job. Besides Thune, head of the Senate Republican Policy Committee, are conference chairman Sen. Lamar Alexander and National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman John Cornyn. Says one insider: "We could have had Lamar as whip and Cornyn as conference chair with little to no internal fuss." [Read more about the 2012 presidential election.]

But it appears that a fight could be on and it could last all the way through December 2012 when the leadership jobs are chosen. Top aides said that at the start Alexander is positioned well to take the No. 2 job because of his relations with members, his long conservative record, and his staff and collection of friends and consultants who have experience in winning tough races. But Cornyn has a lot of support among new senators, many of whom he helped win as his role as NRSC chair in the last cycle, and those he helps win in 2012 will also be inclined to support his candidacy.