John Thune looms over Tim Pawlenty’s Iowa plan

December 13, 2010
While other prospects for the 2012 GOP presidential nomination are already making forays into Iowa, Sen. John Thune has taken pains not to set foot in the first-in-the-nation state at all. The last time he was in the state was early 2009, headlining a campaign event for Iowa Rep. Steve King.

Nevertheless, if he decides to run, the widespread assumption is that as the senator from neighboring South Dakota, he’ll play well there. And that’s a problem for Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, another potential GOP contender from a neighboring state who’s been the most aggressive of the 2012 contenders about laying Iowa groundwork, with a systematic approach that includes hiring top Iowa-savvy GOP operatives and campaigning for state-level Republican candidates.

Thune acknowledges that geography could play an important role in the Iowa caucuses in 2012.

“I think that the advantage of being next to Iowa means you can start a little bit later,” he said in an interview with POLITICO. Like others, Thune isn’t likely to formally launch a campaign until late winter or early spring of next year.

South Dakota borders Iowa’s northwest corner, the most conservative part of the state. North Sioux City, S.D., shares a media market with Sioux City, Iowa, where voters would have seen the ad wars between Thune and then-Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle in their epic 2004 Senate race. They also might have seen local online ads Thune took out this year, though he didn’t air television or radio for his unopposed reelection bid.

That’s built-in name recognition for Thune, said King, the conservative Republican who represents the state’s western third. “In Northwest Iowa, people get their news coming out of Sioux Falls [S.D.], and the Sioux City media covers South Dakota news as well,” King said in an interview.

“There would be an open door to John Thune” in that part of the state, said King, who hasn’t endorsed a 2012 candidate. “I think a lot of him, and I think he would have an early foothold.”

Thune’s retail politicking talent and his familiarity with small-town and farm-state politics could also serve to make him the candidate who most directly threatens Pawlenty’s hoped-for home-field advantage.

Iowa has an agricultural economy that’s similar to eastern South Dakota’s, and Thune is well-versed in the issues that matter to farm voters. He’s worked with the Iowa delegation on issues including ethanol, a topic on which his Senate office issued multiple joint news releases with GOP Sen. Charles Grassley this year. Thune even held a campaign event for Grassley this year-in South Dakota.

Thune has told local media that Iowa’s political culture of personal, face-to-face campaigning suits him. Iowa “would be a big part” of a presidential campaign strategy, he told South Dakota’s Rapid City Journal in September. “I think you could run more of a retail campaign there, which is more my style, anyway.”

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