Winslow Townson, Associated Press
Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney speaks to employees at BAE Systems in Nashua, N.H., Monday, Nov. 21, 2011.
WASHINGTON — Presidential candidate Mitt Romney was set to announce Wednesday the endorsement of South Dakota Sen. John Thune, a rising star in the Republican Party who had weighed a White House bid of his own before deciding to stay in the Senate and move up in his party's leadership.
Thune is the latest high-profile Republican to back Romney, the former Massachusetts governor who opened the week with the backing of another emerging GOP star, Sen. Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire. Romney, who enjoys steady support in the polls and a sophisticated political and fundraising machine, is looking to demonstrate his strength with fewer than six weeks before the first nominating contests.
"Mitt Romney has shown throughout his life in the private sector, as leader of the Olympics, as governor and in this campaign that he will not back down from difficult challenges," Thune said in a statement. "His plans to revitalize the private sector and restore our country's fiscal health are drawn from his 25-year career as a conservative businessman."
Thune, who won his seat by defeating Democratic Leader Tom Daschle in 2004 and coasted to a second term last year without a Democratic opponent, was set to appear with Romney in Des Moines on Wednesday. The endorsement came a day after Romney posted yet another strong debate performance and a day before most campaigns planned a brief break from politics for Thanksgiving.
Thune is also the latest of the Republicans who mulled a White House bid — or, in the case of former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, actually launched one — only to line up behind Romney.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who reconsidered his early insistence he would not run after party leaders pined for him, backed Romney last month.
Earlier this week, Rep. Charlie Bass of New Hampshire joined Romney's campaign. Bass, who served six terms in Congress before losing his re-election bid in 2006, only to win back his seat in 2010, was named a national adviser to the campaign. He joins other New Hampshire notables, including Ayotte, former Sen. Judd Gregg and former Gov. John H. Sununu.
Romney has long enjoyed a strong advantage in New Hampshire, where he placed second during his 2008 White House bid and where he owns a vacation home. Romney, the former governor of neighboring Massachusetts, has high name recognition in New Hampshire and has built a solid get-out-the-vote operation.
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But he's starting to eye Iowa as a target as well. He recently opened a campaign office there, and his campaign gave first word of the Thune endorsement to The Des Moines Register and The Sioux City Journal in the hopes of building buzz there.
Romney aides immediately confirmed the endorsement, hoping to signal unstoppable momentum behind Romney this time around.
In 2008, Romney spent $7 million on Iowa airwaves and built an enormous statewide organization, but he never won over conservatives who dominate the early decision-making.