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New Hampshire Seeing Mixed Messages on Thune’s 2012 Ambitions

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New Hampshire Republican operatives, already navigating recruitment calls from prospective 2012 presidential candidates, say they’re getting mixed messages about Sen. John Thune’s intentions.

The South Dakota Republican is one of Capitol Hill’s favorite rumored contenders. In the state that will host the nation’s first presidential primary, however, Thune has been slow to prove he’s serious about a White House bid.

He was in touch with Granite State political players regularly in the first half of 2009, but the calls dried up months ago.

“I haven’t heard from him since August. Nobody’s heard from him since then,” said one prominent GOP strategist who has yet to commit to a 2012 campaign but played a leading role in New Hampshire’s 2000 and 2008 GOP primaries. “I would love to work for him, but I’m convinced he’s not running.”

Granite State Republicans acknowledge that the 2012 cycle is beginning far more slowly than those of recent years. But some candidates are quietly more active than others. Days before the November midterms, Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty temporarily shipped several staffers north to help the New Hampshire GOP, while promoting his political action committee Freedom First.

Pawlenty is the only prospective candidate with a staffer on the ground today, but former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney is actively securing support from what remained of his 2008 presidential bid, when he finished second in the Granite State. Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich have visited multiple times. Thune’s efforts may be limited to date, but he has at least one well-connected friend on the ground making calls on his behalf.

The Hanover, N.H.-based Gregory Slayton, a former Thune finance director and Bermuda ambassador under the Bush and Obama administrations, told Roll Call that he’s been “talking to friends and getting their input” about a potential Thune candidacy.

“There are a couple folks who appear [as if] they’re going to enter the race. Until the field gets a little clearer, it’s hard to say who’s the frontrunner. But I think John Thune would play very, very well in New Hampshire,” Slayton said, noting Thune’s friendship with Arizona Sen. John McCain, who is among the Granite State’s most popular Republicans. “Thune backed McCain very early in his presidential bid.” Roll Call reported this month that Thune has been seeking advice from McCain and other Senate colleagues about a White House bid.

Thune may be poised to use a geographic advantage to emerge from the Iowa caucuses with momentum heading into New Hampshire. South Dakota and Iowa, of course, share a border. They also share a major media market, meaning that Thune could be known to Iowa voters almost as well as those in his home state. President Barack Obama, then a Senator from Illinois, used a similar strategy in 2007 and 2008 to make frequent visits to Iowa.

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