Three weeks before a pivotal midterm election, Republican Sen. John Thune addressed an energetic conservative crowd in Kalispell, providing a glimpse of what the 2012 presidential race might look like.
Thune, who defeated then-Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle in 2004, is unchallenged in seeking reelection this year to represent South Dakota. He is also on every political observer’s short-list of potential GOP presidential candidates, a roster that includes former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin and Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, among others.
When former Montana Congressman Rick Hill rose to inquire, following the speech, whether Thune would form an exploratory committee for the presidency, he declined to give a definitive answer: “I don’t know what we’re going to do,” he said. “We’ll take a look at it and give it some thought.”
But in an interview with the Beacon following the event, it was evident Thune has considered the path to the GOP presidential nomination, when asked how someone in government, like him, can make their voices heard over other potential Republican candidates currently working as paid pundits for Fox News.
“I’m not sure that, in places where you have to campaign, like Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, having a platform, being in the media may be somewhat important, but those are states that are very retail-oriented. I think it’s going to require getting out there on the ground and being willing to roll up your sleeves and go to work and meet voters in small groups and small settings and get to the parades and fairs and the rodeos,” Thune said. “It’s a very, I think, grassroots-oriented-type campaign and so, I don’t view not having a platform on Fox News as a disadvantage.”
The event was paid for by the Heritage Foundation, a conservative Washington D.C.-based think tank, and hosted by Semitool founder Ray Thompson and his wife, Ladeine. The roughly 250-person crowd included many of Montana’s top Republicans, from local lawmakers to Steve Daines, the 2008 GOP nominee for lieutenant governor and former state House Speaker Scott Sales. Former General Paul Vallely, a military analyst for Fox News who lives in Bigfork, was also present.
Those who filled the conference room at the Hilton Garden Inn were there, not only to hear a charismatic leader rev up the crowd on the cusp of an election likely to send many Republicans to Congress, but also to assess the talents of a man who may seek the highest office in the land during an era of deep public discontent and economic uncertainty.
What they got was a straightforward conservative in the Western mold. After describing his family’s roots in South Dakota and his historic upset of Daschle, Thune outlined a “core set of values,” that included: limited government, fiscal responsibility, personal freedom, free enterprise and America’s responsibility to “maintain peace around the world by projecting strength.”
Acknowledging his beliefs are far from revolutionary for someone in his party, Thune said, “They’re not new, but they’re timeless.” He then speculated as to how Ronald Reagan, who Thune said inspired him to become a Republican, might view President Barack Obama’s policies.
“If Ronald Reagan were still around, he would probably say that you don’t create jobs by expanding government, you create jobs by expanding the economy,” Thune said. He would reference Reagan three more times in the speech, returning repeatedly to a quote he ascribed to the former president that, “there may not be any easy answers but there are simple answers.”
Thune described potential threats posed to farmers and ranchers by Environmental Protection Agency proposals to regulate methane from cattle and dust. He criticized the increase in federal spending under Obama. And he said the looming expiration of the so-called Bush tax cuts, scheduled for Jan. 1, was having a stifling effect on business: “All you hear out there right now, if you’re in business, is uncertainty.”
“We are at a tipping point,” Thune said. “If we don’t get this thing turned around, in the next five years, in my view we are heading for a really bad train wreck.”
Despite the criticism, however, Thune largely refrained from lobbing rhetorical bombs at Democrats to fire up the crowd in favor of imploring those in the audience “to be in the arena” of this year’s elections. Tall and fit, Thune looks like a presidential candidate, but his reserved, calm demeanor naturally prompts the question of whether he can distinguish himself in a field of presidential contenders where the loudest, most provocative voices tend to prevail.
The fourth-ranking Republican in the Senate, Thune is also clearly within the establishment of his party at a time when Washington outsider status is prized by many conservative voters, particularly those involved in the Tea Party movement. Both branches of the GOP were evident in the Kalispell crowd as Thune fielded questions on constitutionally sound money (an alternative to the federal reserve system), threats of martial law, and whether a House bill could put the oceans under control of the United Nations.
After his remarks, however, many seemed to find Thune’s approach appealing, like Margaret Baird of Lakeside, who expressed her belief that in a run for president, “He’d be himself.”
“I think he’s a low-key, solid-thinking conservative man,” Baird said, with “real potential for leadership.”
Mike Nye, of Kalispell, also expressed a preference for Thune’s style over some of cable TV’s talking heads.
“I think maybe loud and brash is wearing thin on the American public,” Nye said. “It’s one thing to say something, it’s another thing to follow through.”
At 24 years old, Josh Maltby was among the younger people present. Maltby said he liked Thune because, “He’s not a showboat.”
“It shows he’s down to earth, like a lot of us,” Maltby added. “Sometimes a whisper is one of the loudest voices.”
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