- The Washington Times - Monday, December 27, 2004

John Thune says he’s ready to get the Republican agenda moving again in the Senate.

The senator-elect — who focused the nation’s eyes on South Dakota as he defeated Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle on Nov. 2 — returns to Washington as a conservative former member of the House of Representatives.

“I think this is a class that can really be a catalyst for change,” the South Dakota Republican said in an interview with The Washington Times. “I hope we put together a record of accomplishment.”

Mr. Thune, 43, joins five other freshman Republican senators who also served in the House under aggressive House Republican leaders.

As a senator, he said, he’d first like to help “jump-start” bills that got stuck in the Senate during the past few years — the energy bill, the highway bill and medical-malpractice reform — as well as several of President Bush’s judicial nominees.

Beyond that, he and fellow freshman Republicans have big goals — along with Mr. Bush — of reforming the tax code and making key changes to Social Security.

“I think you will really see in this class, and the class before it, sort of a nucleus forming,” Mr. Thune said, describing a group that is “reform-minded” and wants “to be a part of solutions.”

Mr. Thune told CBS’ “Face the Nation” yesterday that every judicial nominee should get a vote, up or down.

“An issue that was important in this last campaign, I think, for a lot of us who were running, was that people who are sent forward by the president of the United States not be held up because of a filibuster,” he said.

Republicans in 2002 recruited Mr. Thune, who directed the state party before entering the House in 1997, to challenge Sen. Tim Johnson, South Dakota Democrat. Mr. Thune lost by about 500 votes.

This time around, as Republicans urged him to run against Mr. Daschle, Mr. Thune was reluctant to put his family through a grueling campaign. He jokes that in a secret-ballot family vote with his wife and two teenage daughters, his was the only vote against running again.

In the end, Mr. Thune said, he decided to enter the race because the timing was right and “somebody needed to challenge [Daschle].” Mr. Thune won by about 4,500 votes, beating the Democratic leader 51 percent to 49 percent.

Rep. Tom Osborne, Nebraska Republican, said he saw Mr. Thune “mature as a candidate” this time and calls him an “articulate and intelligent” lawmaker.

The two became friends because of their mutual love of sports and service together on the House Agriculture Committee.

“He’s not a bomb thrower,” said Mr. Osborne, who helped Mr. Thune campaign. “He’s not going to make … rash statements to get his name in the paper.”

Bill Richardson, a political science professor at the University of South Dakota, said voters this time saw Mr. Thune “being able to be aggressive [and] drive home his point,” as well as having “a strong moral thread to him.”

Even opponents say the affable, natural athlete has a gift.

“He’s a very talented politician. You would have to be to defeat Tom Daschle,” said Jason Schulte, executive director of the South Dakota Democratic Party.

Mr. Schulte said Mr. Thune is good at the “retail politics” essential to South Dakotans — remembering names and coming across as warm and personable.

But Mr. Schulte said Mr. Thune will have a steep challenge ahead as voters watch closely to see if he can deliver the level of clout that South Dakota enjoyed while Mr. Daschle represented them in Washington — an argument Mr. Daschle used against Mr. Thune during the campaign.

Republicans shot back that being a member of the majority party will help Mr. Thune in his new role, as will his closeness to the White House — which encouraged him to run for the Senate.

But both sides say that on water projects and other issues of importance to South Dakota, Mr. Thune is on the same page with Mr. Johnson and Rep. Stephanie Herseth, a Democrat, and they will be able to work together.

To that end, Mr. Thune’s assignment to the Environment and Public Works Committee will be important.He also is assigned to the Armed Services, Small Business and Veterans Affairs committees.

Mr. Thune began his foray into politics as a high school freshman. The son of a high school teacher and librarian, he played varsity basketball that year. After the young Thune made five out of six free throws in one game, then-Rep. Jim Abdnor, South Dakota Republican, approached to chide him about missing the sixth shot.

“I was giving him a hard time,” Mr. Abdnor joked.

A friendship began, and Mr. Thune eventually went to work for Mr. Abdnor in Washington when he became a senator.

“This guy’s got a personality like you’ve never seen,” Mr. Abdnor said. “He was that way as a kid — a great disposition, a good head on his shoulders. … You can believe what he says. He’s a high-class guy.”

Mr. Thune said he first contemplated running for office while working for Mr. Abdnor, “one of the most decent people to hold public office.”

Watching his hero lose Senate re-election to a young Tom Daschle in 1986 was “disillusioning,” Mr. Thune said. So it was “a special thing,” he said, when Mr. Abdnor sat in Thune headquarters in November to witness Mr. Daschle’s defeat.

The 81-year-old Mr. Abdnor sat up until the wee morning hours of Nov. 3 and plans to be in Washington for Mr. Thune’s swearing-in ceremony next month. He never held bitterness toward Mr. Daschle, he said, but it was good to see Mr. Thune win.

“Certainly, I got a lot of satisfaction out of it,” he said.

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