Sen. DeMint's first term was a doozy. Now he's ready for No. 2

McClatchy NewspapersApril 19, 2010 

WASHINGTON — No one can say that Jim DeMint's first term in the U.S. Senate has been uneventful.

The Greenville Republican helped defeat a major immigration bill he branded "amnesty" but failed to stop a major health care measure he warned would be President Barack Obama's "Waterloo."

DeMint criticized GOP President George W. Bush for spending too much and accused Democrat Obama of leading the nation toward socialism.

The freshman senator added spending "earmarks" to Americans' political lexicon, stripped $17 billion worth of them from a giant appropriations bill and annoyed lawmakers — from both political parties — seeking funds for projects back home.

In the past five months alone, DeMint compelled Obama to support a Honduran government takeover the president originally called a coup and to withdraw his choice to head the Transportation Security Administration because the nominee refused to oppose the agency's unionization.

Never one to set his sights low, DeMint chose the audacious title "Saving Freedom" for a book he published last year.

DeMint's take-no-prisoners brand of politics led the National Review political journal to call him "Senator Tea Party" in a recent cover story. It's made him a hero among conservative activists nationwide.

DeMint's high-profile, high-stakes tactics have earned the ire of his political opponents: Obama has criticized him at White House briefings, while the Democratic National Committee has run TV ads ridiculing him.

In response to the uproar over his Waterloo dare of Obama last July, one DNC ad intoned: “Senator Jim DeMint is playing politics with our health care, putting the special interests in Washington ahead of South Carolina families and businesses.

DeMint, 58, has started appearing on the Sunday talk shows, long the domain of fellow S.C. Republican U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham. "We'll find out in November who won or lost this (health care) battle," DeMint told CBS' "Face the Nation" last month.

DeMint, who owned a Greenville marketing firm before his election to the U.S. House in 1988, doesn't mind all the attention. "I'm proud of helping to raise the national awareness of the problems with wasteful spending," DeMint told McClatchy. "What I think I've done more than anything else as an individual senator is to help engage people all over the country."

It's virtually a foregone conclusion that DeMint will win the June 8 Republican Senate primary in a walkover: His only opponent is Susan Gaddy, a Charleston attorney and former Democrat who has never held elective office.

DeMint has more than $3.2 million in his campaign coffers. Gaddy barely beat the March 30 filing deadline to enter the race; as of Friday, she hadn't launched a campaign Web site.

While soft-spoken and almost demure in style, DeMint delights in poking a stick in the eyes of his political foes.

In February, while a record blizzard paralyzed the nation's capital, DeMint tweeted: "It's going to keep snowing in D.C. until Al Gore cries 'uncle.'"

Small matter that DeMint's barb flew in the face of science (global warming makes snowfall more likely because it increases atmospheric humidity); the dig was widely reported on political blogs.

Since Obama's historic inauguration 15 months ago, DeMint has been a relentless critic of the president.

As more than 1,000 delegates to the American Conservative Union roared in approval in February, DeMint accused Obama of trying “to sell socialism” to Americans and of leading a government “teetering toward tyranny.”

In a rare departure from his high-octane attacks on Obama, DeMint last July told "birthers," those who claim that Obama wasn't born in the United States, to get a life.

"He is my president, he deserves our respect, and we need to forget that nonsense," DeMint told the liberal-minded Huffington Post.

In an interview with McClatchy on Thursday, DeMint credited Obama with sending more troops to Afghanistan and taking a tough stance against terrorism there.

"I've been supportive of his policies in Afghanistan," DeMint said. "I'm a little concerned about his early withdrawal date, but showing strength there has been important."

But on Obama's signature domestic initiative, extending health insurance to 32 million Americans, DeMint remains defiant.

"I was one of the most prominent opponents helping Americans understand the negative aspects of that bill," DeMint said. "Certainly, the fact that a majority of Americans today believe that the health-care bill was a mistake indicates I've been effective."

That view is not shared by all Republicans.

David Frum, a former Bush speechwriter, singled DeMint out for criticism as a leader of the GOP "hardliners" who refused to negotiate with Obama over the health-care reforms.

"We followed the most radical voices in the party and the movement, and they led us to abject and irreversible defeat," Frum wrote last month after House passage of the landmark measure.

DeMint, though, is confident that the fall elections will redeem him - not only by returning him to office, but by sending many new Republican lawmakers to Washington.

"I believe (the health-care law) will ultimately be the demise of the Obama administration and the Democrats," he said. "I think we're going to see the results of that in November."

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