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John Thune’s Choice a Sign of Worry Over Newt Gingrich

Chris Maddaloni/CQ Roll Call

Sen. John Thune’s (S.D.) endorsement of Mitt Romney leaves little doubt Congressional Republicans consider the former Massachusetts governor the most electable GOP presidential candidate, and it signals fears that former Speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.) could hamper the ticket and cost Republicans the Senate majority as the nominee.

Thune’s embracing of Romney last week in Iowa might also reveal the South Dakotan’s lingering ambition for higher office. Thune, who pondered a 2012 White House bid of his own, declined to rule out accepting an invitation to serve as Romney’s running mate, or in his Cabinet, should either scenario materialize. But he said such opportunities were irrelevant to his endorsement.

Thune’s emphasis on Romney’s electability against President Barack Obama — even as he vouched for the former governor’s conservative credentials — appears to betray anxiety over the abilities of the rest of the field in a general election.

Republicans also worry that a weak nominee could diminish the party’s solid prospects for flipping the four seats needed to retake the Senate.

“I’ve looked at it, watched the debates, came to the conclusion that both in terms of what we need as far as experience and skill set, he’s got the right leadership abilities and experience to try and turn the country around, and secondly, I think he’s electable,” Thune told Roll Call in an interview. “The goal is to make sure that we keep the current president from getting a second term, and I think [Romney] is best positioned to do that.”

Thune, the Senate Republican Policy Committee chairman, is set for a promotion to Conference chairman in January when Sen. Lamar Alexander (Tenn.) will voluntarily relinquish that post. Thune has not ruled out running for Whip, the No. 2 party leadership position, in the next Congress.

The Romney endorsement came just as Gingrich began rising in national and early caucus and primary state polls, positioning the former Speaker as the latest Republican to audition for the role of consensus alternative to Romney, who is considered too moderate and philosophically malleable in some conservative circles.

The upside for Romney is obvious, as much as the backing of a Capitol Hill figure might be helpful when Congress’ approval ratings are near single digits. It could lend him badly needed conservative credibility. Sen. Roy Blunt (Mo.), who is leading Romney’s Member-whip operation, said Thune’s “values and world view in South Dakota are deeply understood in Iowa. ... There was a reason they made that endorsement in Des Moines, not in Sioux Falls.”

Republican operatives also see potential advantage for Thune, saying that the pact is mutually beneficial.

“He is clearly positioning himself early for vice president or a Cabinet-level position,” said one GOP strategist with relationships in the Senate. “He knows that Romney needs someone like Thune who has strong conservative credentials, a respected member of Senate leadership and effective spokesman on the circuit.” 

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