July 31, 2004


Hunting Mr. Democrat (SHERYL GAY STOLBERG, 8/01/04, NY Times Magazine)

Square-jawed and telegenic (when his female colleagues created a gag pinup calendar, Hunks of the House, Thune got top billing as Mr. January), Thune is also a regular guy -- someone who can wax eloquent on the various flavors of Gatorade or crack up his aides by reciting lines from the Chevy Chase ''Vacation'' movies. ''John doesn't have to turn it on, and a lot of candidates do,'' said Dick Wadhams, Thune's campaign manager. ''They think, Oh, I've got to be charming in a couple of minutes.'' In a state where politeness matters, Thune is unfailingly so. If he swears, I never heard it, and I never saw him drink anything stronger at dinner than cranberry lemonade.

The Thunes were not politically active, and Thune is not one of those politicians who got his start running for student council. His entry was basketball. One Friday night during Thune's freshman year of high school, Representative Jim Abdnor, a farmer and West River Republican, dropped into Murdo and watched Thune sink five out of six free throws. The next day, Abdnor stopped young Thune in town. ''I noticed you missed one,'' he said by way of introduction.

They struck up a friendship that would go far beyond the basketball court. Now 81, Abdnor said it was Thune who, barely out of high school, persuaded him to take on South Dakota's legendary liberal Democratic senator, George McGovern. ''He thought I could win,'' Abdnor said. ''He didn't have any factual stuff, but he was convincing.''

In 1980, Abdnor rode Ronald Reagan's coattails to the Senate by portraying McGovern as out of touch. In 1985, Thune, inspired by the Reagan message of lower taxes and smaller government, went to Washington to work for Abdnor. But his stint as a Capitol Hill aide was short. Abdnor was soon caught up in a race against Daschle to keep his Senate seat -- and in a Republican Party feud that colors South Dakota politics to this day.

In 1986, when Daschle was in the House and running for the Senate, Bill Janklow, a Republican populist just finishing two terms as governor, challenged Abdnor in a primary to decide who would face down Daschle. The irascible, domineering, occasionally gun-toting Janklow is among the most colorful politicians South Dakota has ever had. He might have beat Daschle but never got the chance; Abdnor, the conservative favorite, won the primary, then lost the general election. Daschle has been senator ever since.

In 1996, Thune ran an upstart campaign for the House, defeating Janklow's lieutenant governor in the primary and a former Daschle associate in the general election; he promptly gained a leadership spot in his freshman class.

Election night may be a whole lot of fun.

Posted by Orrin Judd at July 31, 2004 11:47 PM

Thune beating DAschle will hopefully be one of the highlights for the GOP on election night.

Posted by: AWW at August 1, 2004 12:35 AM

Are there any Brothers Judd readers in Omaha willing to join me in getting wacky, wiped-out, party-time plastered should this actually occur on Election Night? Applicants will be expected to demonstrate felicity in singing We Are the Champions and The Goodbye Song while wearing lampshades on the head.

Posted by: Matt Murphy at August 1, 2004 1:45 AM

Dear commentators all, put some money where your heart is by sending Thune a few bucks.

Posted by: genecis at August 1, 2004 10:50 AM

I was happy to see that (D) Stephanie Herseth won the election to fill the murderously careless Janklow's House seat. (And a shame that Janklow didn't get a few years in stir).
I hope that she can win re-election. It was a very tight race during the special election, and since Bush will head the GOP ticket this time...

Posted by: Michael Herdegen at August 1, 2004 1:36 PM