- Associated Press - Tuesday, February 22, 2011

PIERRE, S.D. | Sen. John Thune said Tuesday that he will not join what’s expected to be a crowded GOP field of presidential hopefuls next year, concluding he would have a difficult time raising money and that President Obama would be tough to beat.

Mr. Thune was seen as one of several potential challengers to Mr. Obama in 2012 - and the only GOP senator even contemplating the race. His exit is the first clear signal of who will - and who will not - compete for the Republican nomination.

Mr. Thune, 50, said in an interview that he’s not as recognizable as other possible candidates and wouldn’t be able to raise enough money for the race.

“We would have a more difficult time with the resources than perhaps some other better-known candidates would have,” Mr. Thune said. He declined to endorse any other potential contenders.

The lanky senator is not well known outside South Dakota, but some Republican operatives had hoped he might emerge over time as a presidential contender with solid conservative credentials and a can-do, common-sense Midwestern aura.

The most optimistic suggested Mr. Thune could become “a Republican Obama.” They noted his rather modest federal government resume, hoping he could fill in the blank spaces with policy proposals and character traits appealing to a wide swath of voters.

Mr. Thune said he saw Mr. Obama as a “very shrewd politician” who moved toward the center after last year’s midterm elections to pass a tax-cut extension with Republican support.

“As I observed his response and reaction to the midterm election, that was all part of my assessment of the landscape,” he said. “Any incumbent is a tough race, and he’s no exception. I think he’s got plenty of vulnerabilities, but I also observed how adept politically he was.”

Mr. Thune, however, said he believed the president could be beaten next year. A successful GOP candidate will have to be a prolific fundraiser and be able to “capture the hearts and minds of the American people,” he said.

Mr. Thune said he ultimately decided not to run because he wanted to stay in the Senate and focus on national and state issues. Many forecasters say the GOP is poised to move into the majority in the Senate after the 2012 vote.

“I didn’t feel that I could proceed with a national campaign and continue to do the kind of justice I needed to do for my day job,” he said.

Mr. Thune is serving his second term in the Senate. He captured the national spotlight in 2004 by beating Democrat Tom Daschle, then the Senate minority leader, in a tight race. He’s now the No. 4 Republican in the Senate and is chairman of the Senate Republican Policy Committee.

He won re-election in November without an opponent. He’s popular among Republican lawmakers, and though none had endorsed him, he was the lone member of the Senate laying groundwork for a potential bid.

With six years each in the U.S. House and Senate, Mr. Thune has spent considerably more time in Congress than Obama had when he was elected president. His opposition to gay marriage and abortion has earned him points with evangelicals, while his pro-business, anti-tax and pro gun-rights stances have garnered support among more libertarian leaning conservatives.

But some have criticized Mr. Thune’s vote for the Wall Street bailout in 2008. Mr. Thune acknowledged that vote was “clearly an issue for a lot of conservatives.”

With Mr. Thune’s exit, it appears the most serious White House contenders will be current and former governors who will campaign on their records running statehouses.

Asked if his decision not to run next year was final, Mr. Thune demurred.

“I don’t think you ever totally rule things out, but I wanted to come to closure on this,” he said. “For me, for now, my work is in the United States Senate.”

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