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Thune tells family history in convention speech

South Dakota Sen. John Thune addresses the Republican National Convention Wednesday in Tampa, Fla. (AP photo)

Sen. John Thune evoked the founding of Thune Hardware in Mitchell during his speech to the 2012 Republican National Convention.

At the top of his eight-minute speech, Thune told the story of two Norwegian brothers, Nicolai and Matthew Gjelsvik, who were forced to change their last names when they came to America. They chose the name of the farm where they had worked in Norway: Thune Farm.

Nikolai Gjelsvik became Nick Thune, who was Sen. Thune's grandfather. The brothers worked for a railroad and saved money to start the small hardware store in Mitchell.

"And yes, Mr. President. they did build it," Thune said, a favorite Republican line assailing President Obama for a recent statement.

It drew cheers, and the camera cut to Thune's wife, Kimberley, who was applauding her husband.

Sen. Thune said during World War II, his father Harold, a Mitchell native, served as a Navy aviator flying combat missions from the aircraft carrier Intrepid in the Pacific theater of operations. Harold Thune shot down four enemy planes in one mission and was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, his son said.

The elder Thune then returned to South Dakota, where he worked and raised his family.

"Many versions of that story are told all across this country," John Thune said. "The details may be different but the dream is the same."

But he said Obama's policies have put such dreams "in serious jeopardy."

"The big-government bureaucrats of the Obama administration have set their sights on our way of life," he said. "Instead of preserving family farms and ranches, President Obama's policies are effectively regulating them out of business."

Thune said Obama was responsible for 42 consecutive months of unemployment above 8 percent, which he said is the longest such streak on record, a 19 percent hike in family health insurance premiums, a 25 percent increase in college tuition, all while fuel costs doubled, and the number of families on food stamps jumped 45 percent.

He said the president is also "piling" debt on future generations while not boosting middle class incomes.

"Folks, we won't be in this situation with Mitt Romney in the White House," Thune said. "He understands what it takes for businesses large and small to grow and create jobs.

"On Day One of Mitt Romney's presidency, the transformation of Washington will begin," he said.

Thune said Obama's "arrogance," his willingness to condemn success and the feeling that government knows best and can do all will be gone once Romney takes office.

He said Romney would serve as a "catalyst to growth" who will strengthen the middle class. The future of America's children depends on electing Romney, he said.

Thune, 51, a second-term Republican South Dakota senator, wore a dark suit, white shirt and red tie. He smiled broadly at times and seemed at ease after saying Tuesday he was a little nervous about his first major convention speech.

"Thank you, South Dakota," were his first words.

A star high school athlete who also played college basketball, Thune acknowledged his love of sports and said people have asked him if he has played hoops with Obama.

"I'm still waiting for that invitation," he said. "I can tell you this, President Obama would be easy to defend because you know he's always going to go to his left."

The speech drew limited response from the audience, at least from a TV viewer's perspective. It was carried on PBS and C-SPAN; only the final hour of the night was on network TV.

Don Simmons, dean of the College of Public Service and Leadership at Dakota Wesleyan University, said he felt Thune did well in a fairly tough time slot.

"I thought he gave a pretty good speech and I thought he hit the points the convention organizers and Republican leaders wanted him to focus on," Simmons said.

But he said it was clear a lot of the delegates and people in the audience were waiting for other speakers.

"He didn't have a prime-time spot, which was part of the problem," Simmons said. "I can see how it would be a little difficult to give a speech in that time slot when the delegates are not focused on the convention quite yet."

But he said it is a sign of the respect Thune has within the national party that he was given one of the coveted speaking slots, no matter when it was scheduled.

"There's no doubt Thune is a leader within the Republican Party," Simmons said.

Thune was a platform speaker on the second of three nights of the convention, which is being held in Tampa, Fla. Other Wednesday night speakers included Arizona Sen. John McCain, the 2008 Republican presidential nominee, Ohio Sen. Rob Portman, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez.

Republican vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan, a Wisconsin congressman, accepted the runningmate role in a speech to cap Wednesday's events. The convention wraps up tonight as Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, accepts the presidential nomination.

The Democratic National Convention, set in Charlotte, N.C., opens Tuesday and runs for three days.