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John Thune, the Republican Obama?

John Thune appears to be running for president in 2012. Photo by Washington Post

After months of playing coy, South Dakota Sen. John Thune (R) opened the door wide to a potential 2012 presidential bid in a profile piece done on him by the Weekly Standard's Stephen Hayes.

Said Thune of a presidential bid:

"I'm getting a very full look at it. I suppose you try to think what it would look like. One, is it something you want to do. Two, do you think there's a pathway to get there. And that's obviously a thought process that involves a lot of other people -- your family and whatnot."

That acknowledgment of what has long been assumed within Republican political circles will kickstart a closer look at Thune and an analysis of whether or not he has the stuff to win the nomination.

Hayes -- in a piece anyone with even a passing interest in 2012 should read -- rightly notes that Thune's resume is one that has considerable potential in a field as wide open as this one.

The story, familiar to political types but not to the average Republican voter, is compelling: small town boy -- Thune's hometown of Murdo has a population of 679 -- turns into star athlete and successful politician, eventually defeating the most powerful Democrat in the Senate (Tom Daschle) in a race that turns him into a national star.

But, as compelling as Thune's personal story is, whether or not he winds up as a serious contender for the Republican nomination could well depend on whether GOP primary voters decide they want to nominate their own version of President Obama or head in the exact opposite direction.

Make no mistake: the 2012 election will be a referendum on President Obama and what he has done with and for the country over his first four years in office.

The identity of the Republican nominee matters but only (or at least largely) in relation to Obama. Remember that Bill Clinton's empathy and average guy-ness stood out to voters in 1992 largely because they felt that President George H.W. Bush was too aloof and out of touch and were looking for an alternative. Ditto the appeal of Ronald Reagan's optimism in contrast to the malaise of President Jimmy Carter, the most recent recipient of the Fix's "Worst Week in Washington" award.

Thune, obviously, would benefit if the party's voters -- and strategists -- believed that the path to the presidency lay in nominating a candidate that mirrored Obama's skill set: charismatic and handsome but with a fundamentally different approach to government's role in peoples' lives. (Thune allies note that he has a longer and deeper resume -- three terms in the House, a full Senate term -- than Obama did when he ran for president in 2008.)

Thune's political style also resembles that of Obama -- able to ride above the daily who's up, who's down to navigate a political course that has risen almost without hiccup since the 1990s.

(Worth noting: Both Obama and Thune have had one major electoral hiccup. Obama's came in 2000 when he took just 30 percent in a primary challenge to Rep. Bobby Rush while Thune's came two years later when he fell just short of Sen. Tim Johnson.)

Hayes' description of the South Dakota Republican's demeanor -- "Thune is smooth, but not slick," writes Hayes. "He's the Ernie Els of politics, the Big Easy." -- could easily be used to describe the cool (in a good way) approach to politics that has brought Obama so much success.

Thune -- along with former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney -- are the favored choices if the dominant belief within the Republican party is that the most important thing is to nominate someone stylistically similar to Obama -- someone with the bearing and look (don't underestimate how important it is to look "presidential") to credibly stand with Obama on a debate stage.

The alternative, of course, is to nominate the anti-Obama -- someone who in resume, approach and look draws a purposeful contrast with the President.

Leading that group would be the likes of Govs. Mitch Daniels (Ind.) and Haley Barbour (Miss.) and former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin also probably would be included in that group.

Of the three, Daniels provides perhaps the starkest contrast, having spent much of his life in government and excelling during his two terms as governor -- he is term limited out of office in 2012 -- at making government more efficient.

(Daniels is also short and balding -- providing a visual contrast with Obama.)

At the moment, it's clear that an "anti-Obama" Republican candidate would likely have the edge in the nomination fight due to the tremendous vitriol directed toward the President from the Republican base.

But, once the race engages and Republican presidential primary voters begin to seriously mull who they want to nominate against President Obama in 2012 that calculus could well change.

Thune has to hope it will.

By Chris Cillizza  | September 27, 2010; 12:52 PM ET
Categories:  Eye on 2012  
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