Published November 11, 2010
A South Dakota diner on opening day of hunting season is an easy way for John Thune to work a room. Where the owner and patrons talk health insurance or President Obama's agenda, Thune can recount his battle on the front lines in the Senate.
Thune says he fights to try to prevent the horror stories he hears at home about the rising price of insurance and the difficulties of employers trying to provide it.
"These decisions get made in Washington, and everybody thinks they're being made in a vacuum," Thune told Fox News. "These are hardworking people trying to make ends meet. That's reality for a lot of Americans."
For Thune, getting out of Washington means open prairies and hunting with his buddies. It also means returning to his hometown of Murdo, S.D., a one light town -- and a blinking light at that -- with a population of 679, according to the welcome sign.
Thune's parents still live in his boyhood home where Thune grew up, as quarterback of the football team, star of the basketball team and a track star who still holds the school record for the 800.
If -- as expected -- he runs for president, supporters say it will be in part because of the small town, Midwestern appeal that screams America.
Another part will be his tenacity, demonstrated in part by his ability to take down former Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle.
His 2004 victory over Daschle gave Thune the reputation as a giant killer, and a real political star was born in the Republican Party.
At the time, The National Journal put him on its cover next to another "up and comer" -- a Democrat who now happens to be the current president.
Thune rose quickly through the Republican ranks, and at home he is so popular that Democrats didn't even field a candidate to run against him this year. Thune's name was the only one on the ballot and he became only the sixth U.S. senator since 1914 to win 100 percent of the vote.
Thune doesn't deny that he's giving a 2012 presidential run "some consideration."
"When you get encouragement, when your aspirations in public life are really to make a difference and to put your gifts and abilities to their highest and best use in service, obviously, you look at the opportunities to do that," he said.
Thune admits it is a grandiose prospect, especially given the demands required before even getting into office.
"It's a very daunting thing to think about -- the amount of money that you have to raise in modern politics, particularly for someone like myself, who comes from a small state that doesn't have personal wealth and doesn't have a big network out there so to speak," he said.
Despite his credentials, Thune doesn't define himself as an establishment candidate, instead opting to call himself "a Reaganesque conservative, right-of-center Republican who believes in a limited role for the federal government."
"The way you create jobs isn't to expand the government, but to expand the economy. I believe profoundly in free enterprise and entrepreneurship. I believe you achieve peace through strength. That we ought to promote more freedom in this country -- coupled with individual responsibility. I'm a pro-growth, pro-jobs conservative," he said.
Some have wondered if the description of Thune as charming, congenial, polite and statesmanlike might make him too nice for presidential politics. But Thune, going back to his early sports days, says he can throw elbows if he has to.
"In the modern political world, I describe it as a full contact sport. You have to be willing to get in there and mix it up. I've been through a couple of bare-knuckle campaigns," he said.
Thune says Iran's nuclear program is a "real and present danger" and may be the biggest foreign policy issue facing the U.S. He said it is certainly an existential threat to the Middle East and allies like Israel.
But to him, the greatest threat facing the U.S. near-term is massive debt.
"If we don't get things turned around the next five years or so, this is a tipping point for this country," he said.
Acknowledging he voted for the Troubled Assets Relief Program -- known more colloquially as the bank bailout -- Thune now says he regrets how the money was used.
"The TARP program has been misused, it's been abused. It morphed into something completely different than what I think it was promised when it was being considered and debated. I don't think anybody had any idea that is was going to lead to ownership of car companies and insurance companies and banks. And so, I have probably been the fiercest advocate of ending TARP. It's a dangerous precedent when the federal government starts buying equity ownership or getting equity ownership in the private economy,” he said.
Opponents take issue with Thune's work as a lobbyist during a break between his stint in the House and his current Senate post. As a senator he worked on legislation that benefited his previous employers and that makes him open for criticism.
But Thune is unapologetic, and describes it as an effort to create South Dakota jobs and companies.
Larry Sabato, head of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, says Thune is an attractive candidate, but would have an uphill battle in a bid for president.
"Thune cuts a strong media image. He comes across well on TV, and that matters in modern politics," Sabato said. "He's unknown, from the Midwest, he would have to spend almost full time campaigning and raising money."
Thune agrees he is not well-known across the country, but claims once a campaign begins, especially in the early states, that is a challenge that can be overcome, and could cut to his advantage.
"You look where I come from, and where I spend my time, I may work in Washington but I'm certainly not a creature of Washington," he said.
"Watch “Special Report With Bret Baier” through Nov. 19 for the series “12 in 2012” -- profiles of potential GOP contenders for the White House.