John Thune isn't running for president. Who will make the first move?

The suspense over Campaign 2012 heightens, as Sen. John Thune (R) of South Dakota says he will spend the next two years focusing on his current job, rather than campaigning for the Big Job.

Devin Wagner/Argus Leader/AP
South Dakota Senator John Thune talks with a supporter about his decision to not run for president in 2012 in Sioux Falls, S.D. Tuesday. Thune says he decided not to run for president next year after concluding he'd have a difficult time fundraising and that President Barack Obama would be tough to beat.

John Thune is not running for president. Not that many Americans were wondering.

But the statement Tuesday by the Republican junior senator from South Dakota, indicating that he’s going to spend the next two years focusing on his current job, rather than campaigning for the Big Job, does heighten the suspense over Campaign 2012. As in, when will a big name, or even a reasonably serious one, finally announce for the Republican nomination?

In fact, a few minor figures are already in. Herman Cain, a conservative African-American businessman and talk-radio host, announced his exploratory committee on Jan. 12. Didn’t hear about that? There’s the answer to whether he has a serious chance. And his appearance at the recent Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) didn’t exactly set the Marriott Wardman Park on fire.

Fred Karger, a longtime Republican operative who is openly gay, also has an exploratory committee and has made multiple visits to Iowa and New Hampshire. There’s also Jimmy “Rent Is Too Damn High” McMillan, whose presidential campaign qualifies more as performance art than anything else.

But among the serious contenders, a game of Alphonse and Gaston seems to be going on: You go first. No, you go first. We thought we might have some answers by the end of February, but time’s a-wastin’. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich had indicated a decision on an exploratory committee by the end of February, but on Tuesday, his spokesman, Rick Tyler, told the Monitor via e-mail that it will be “likely early Mar[ch] on the explore decision.”

Two who are sure to run, but haven’t made it official yet, are former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty. Two current governors – Haley Barbour of Mississippi and Mitch Daniels of Indiana – are also taking a hard look, and they would get serious press attention if they jump in.

Sarah Palin? Who knows. Mike Huckabee, former governor of Arkansas, seems deeply conflicted, but he may jump in. Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, the libertarian favorite, is getting on in years but may run anyway. Then there are the third-tier folks (per University of Virginia politics-watcher Larry Sabato), like former Sen. Rick Santorum and former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, who bring credentials to the table but also some liabilities.

At the bottom of Mr. Sabato’s fourth and final tier sits Donald Trump. As he told us at CPAC, the Donald will let us know in June. We can’t wait.

The real question is, how does timing affect one’s chances of getting the nomination? At this point in the 2008 cycle, Barack Obama had already announced. (To be exact, the future president announced on Feb. 10, 2007.) But more important, he wasn’t the first to throw in his hat. All the way back in April 2006, former Alaska Sen. Mike Gravel became the first Democrat to jump in, followed by former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack, who announced in November 2006.

For someone with little name recognition, jumping in early could be a plus. The political media universe is ready and eager for someone, anyone, with half a chance to announce, and whoever goes first will be lavished with attention. Someone with big-name ID and big fundraising ability (see Romney and Palin) doesn’t need that boost.

In fact, Mr. Gingrich has both qualities: He is famous and has a fundraising machine that is unparalleled. But even though conservatives love him, he has some personal baggage and is polarizing. So maybe by announcing early – if he goes that route – he has a head start in reinventing his public image.

Mr. Pawlenty might be one who benefits by being among the first serious contenders to announce, with his low name ID and major fundraising needs. On Feb. 17, he said in Florida that he would announce within “six weeks.” That seems comfortably within the range of when others could jump in.

As for Senator Thune, at least he has given a fairly definitive answer to “are you running?” Here’s the key part of his statement, which he posted on his website:

“There is a battle to be waged over what kind of country we are going to leave our children and grandchildren and that battle is happening now in Washington, not two years from now,” said Thune. “So at this time, I feel that I am best positioned to fight for America’s future here in the trenches of the United States Senate.”

Ultimately, it wasn’t a big surprise that Thune decided not to run “at this time.” (There’s the out, in case he changes his mind.) Sen. Jon Kyl of Arizona, the No. 2 Republican in the Senate, has decided not to run for reelection, and Thune may well compete to move up in the leadership – an especially enticing prospect, as the Republicans have a good shot at taking over the Senate in 2012.

Thune is telegenic, and Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell has been talking him up. But Thune has little national profile. Breaking out in a crowded field would have been a challenge. His CPAC speech also came and went without much notice, as compared with the one by Governor Daniels, who treated the hall to a meaty discussion of fiscal responsibility.

The most memorable part of Thune’s speech was the explanation of his family name. The folks at Ellis Island told his grandfather, Nicolai Gjelsvik, that his name was too hard to pronounce, so he picked Thune – the name of the farm that he had worked on near Bergen, Norway.

Nice story, but not the launch to a presidential campaign.

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