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Is Republican John Thune testing the 2012 waters?

By Steve Holland

OXON HILL, Maryland (Reuters) - Republican Senator John Thune did nothing on Thursday to encourage talk among party loyalists that he might run for president in 2012.

On the other hand, he did not discourage such talk either.

Republicans at this juncture in the political calendar are looking ahead to anticipated gains in November congressional elections against Democratic majorities.

But they are also keeping their options open on who to support for the Republican presidential nomination to face Democratic President Barack Obama in his expected re-election bid in 2012.

Thune, 49, was a keynote speaker at a high-profile conference for Republican state party chairs in this city on the outskirts of Washington and he touched many of the themes that appeal to the party's conservative base.

He repeatedly invoked the name of the Republicans' iconic president, Ronald Reagan.

He preached a return to bedrock conservative principles: Limit the size and cost of the federal government and strengthen U.S. national security.

And he sharply criticized how Democrats have ruled in Washington with the White House and Congress under their control by ramping up spending and government debt.

"You don't spend money you don't have," he said. "We've got to get spending under control."

Speaking to reporters afterward, Thune said his focus is on getting Republicans elected in November, a point that other potential 2012 wannabes are making as well, such as former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney.

When Thune said in his speech that Republicans need to be "in the arena," that did not mean he was eyeing a White House run, he said.

"That was not a personal reference. That was sort of more of an encouragement designed to inspire," he said.

Thune, who toppled long-time Democratic Senator Tom Daschle in South Dakota in 2004, gave some mild criticism of the Massachusetts healthcare plan that Romney helped bring to his state.

Romney has had trouble explaining how the Massachusetts plan is different from the plan Democrats approved this year that has drawn the ire of many Americans.

"What I understand about the Massachusetts plan is that it has led to some increases in costs but, like I said, I'm not in a position to comment on that," Thune said.

Some in the audience thought they might have heard a presidential candidate.

"A lot of people are obviously looking at him as a potential 2012 candidate," said Saul Anuzis, a state party representative from Michigan. "I think he clearly has a persona and an image that is part of it."

"I think he could be a very serious contender," Anuzis said.

Thune, who seems to be on an easy path to re-election this year, said 2010 is his objective.

"I want to help my colleagues," he said.

(Editing by John O'Callaghan)

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