Decision Time for Senator John Thune

In the next month or two, South Dakota's John Thune — called "the Republican Obama" because of his low profile, youth and presidential bearing — will likely decide whether to make the jump from junior U.S. Senator to presidential candidate

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Political talent scouts have called South Dakota's John Thune "the Republican Obama" because his low profile, youth and presidential bearing recall the unknown Illinois Democrat circa January 2007. And in the next month or two, Thune says, he will likely decide whether to make the jump from junior U.S. Senator to presidential candidate in 2012.

For some Republicans, Thune is the answer to their anxieties: the current crop of GOP contenders is dangerously weak, party leaders privately grumble. (Mitt Romney? Been there. Sarah Palin? Too divisive. Tim Pawlenty? Yawn.) His fans say Thune, 50, offers voters a fresh face, a tall and square-jawed profile plus a solid set of conservative credentials. He's been a GOP hero ever since he unseated then Senate majority leader Tom Daschle in 2004. His home state's proximity to all-important Iowa doesn't hurt either. And he has at least one prominent cheerleader in the current Senate Republican leader, Mitch McConnell. "I'm a big John Thune fan," McConnell said on Jan. 25. "I think he should [run]."

Thune is not without his problems as a national candidate. He cast some hard-to-explain Senate votes, like one in support of the 2008 bank bailout — a potential deal breaker for Tea Party foot soldiers. Thune also struggled to defend the roughly $100 million in earmarks he tucked into a spending bill late last year, another irritant for party activists. (He argued awkwardly that he backed the projects but opposed the bill.) In Washington, some Republicans are skeptical that Thune has the fire in the belly for the brutal campaign process and note that he has yet to make a mark on policy issues.

Republican presidential candidates rarely come from out of the blue, and Thune's low national profile and small political operation, relative to those of other 2012 contenders, mean he would need an earlier start than most. He may also be hesitant to commit as Obama's poll numbers climb, making the President look less vulnerable to defeat than he did a few months ago. Thune can't wait much longer, though. "Obviously," he told a South Dakota television station on Jan. 21, "I'm going to have to make a final decision here in the not-too-distant future."