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Posted at 3:46 PM ET, 02/22/2011

John Thune is out, who benefits?

By Chris Cillizza



South Dakota Sen. John Thune is not running for president in 2012. Photo by Melina Mara/The Washington Post

The not-altogether-surprising decision by South Dakota Sen. John Thune to decline a run for president in 2012 does have a ripple effect on the men (and woman?) who remain potential candidates for the GOP nod.

So, who benefits from a Thune-less field?

The most obvious beneficiary is former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty who would have occupied similar space to Thune had the South Dakota Senator run.

Stylistically, the two men are quite similar. Both are happy warriors for the conservative cause, optimistic Midwestern/Plain states Republicans who bill themselves as fresh faces for a party badly in need of them. Both also rely heavily on their personal story; Pawlenty, the blue collar, Sam's Club Republican who was the first person in his family to go to college, Thune the small-town boy who made good.

Ideologically, the men also have a number of parallels. Both Thune and Pawlenty are social conservatives with often-underestimated support among evangelicals. But neither is the oft-caricatured fire-breathing conservative candidate, a trait that supporters of each have long argued make them more electable than many in the field.

Geographically, Thune and and Pawlenty would have been headed on a collision course had they both run. Both men represented states that border Iowa -- the site of the first-in-the-nation caucuses -- and would have made a major push in the Hawkeye State to catapult themselves into national prominence.

With Thune out of the running, Pawlenty will have more room to run -- both in Iowa and elsewhere -- as the new kid on the block, not a bad place to be given the Republican electorate's demonstrated desire for new voices in the 2010 midterms.

While Pawlenty may benefit most from Thune's no-go decision, it also should open up the Iowa field slightly -- good news for any of the lesser known candidates like Govs. Mitch Daniels (Ind.) and Haley Barbour (Miss.) who need to make their names, literally, with a strong finish in Iowa.

Thune's departure also creates a vacuum in the field for a candidate fighting President Obama's proposals from Washington over the next two years.

Though none of the 2012 Republican aspirants want to associate themselves too closely with the nation's capital given the antipathy toward the city within their base, there is an opening now for someone who can credibly say: "I am fighting the President and his policies every day on the front lines."

The obvious person to fill that role in the context of a presidential race is South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint (R) who has emerged as a prime antagonist not just for the President but also for the leadership in his own party over the past two years.

DeMint has been dismissive of the possibility of running for president but his political advisers have suggested he has not entirely close the door on the idea.

It's important to remember in the midst of all of this analysis that Thune was not a major factor in any poll of the 2012 field and so overestimating the impact his departure will have on the field is a danger.

That said, every presidential race is like a game of chess. When one piece is taken off the board, the others pieces are re-positioned to improve your chances of winning.

By Chris Cillizza  | February 22, 2011; 3:46 PM ET
Categories:  Eye on 2012  
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