02/11/2011 01:37 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

John Thune Says CPAC Speech Will Test Waters For 2012 Run

WASHINGTON -- Senator John Thune (R-S.D.) said Friday that his upcoming speech before the Conservative Political Action Conference was designed, in part, to determine whether he would have the necessary support to pursue a presidential bid next year.

"This is, as you know, the largest gathering of conservatives across the country," Thune told The Huffington Post while walking through the crowded halls with throngs of onlookers seeking autographs, some of whom were chanting, "Run, John, run" even before he started speaking. "So we want to get here and get our message out there, hopefully get people inspired, engaged and energized to go out to help us win elections in 2012."

Added Thune: "Our thinking is, we have been in a process for a long time and have given a lot of analysis to this, and at some point this becomes a gut-level decision. But, certainly, this is an event that is important in testing out whether or not the things you are saying connect with the audience."

Commonly labeled a "dark horse" candidate, Thune has a youthful presence and a solidly conservative voting record, but faces some obvious hurdles. Chief among those are his lack of national name recognition and his vote to authorize the Troubled Asset Relief Program, which is now a bete noire for anti-bailout conservatives.

As such, there had been talk on Thursday that Thune, the fourth-ranking Senate Republican, would use the opportunity of Arizona GOP Sen. Jon Kyl's retirement to set his sights on a more elevated leadership post. But Thune said that his colleague's departure from the chamber would have no bearing on his 2012 thinking.

"We have been focused on this for a long time, going through a process trying to determine whether it is the right thing to do," he said. "So we are coming to the final stages of that, but obviously things are changing all the time, events are changing all the time. We just want to come to what we think is the right decision."