WASHINGTON — Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina, often dubbed Senator Tea Party for his avid national following among GOP activists, is trying to parlay last year's success in getting conservatives elected to Congress into the role of presidential kingmaker.
It doesn't hurt that DeMint's state, South Carolina, will host the Republicans' first-in-the-South presidential primary early next year.
On Monday, DeMint will demonstrate his clout when he quizzes six Republican White House aspirants on their commitment to slashing government spending, diminishing Washington's place in Americans' lives and fighting for a constitutional amendment to require a balanced federal budget.
It's a sign of DeMint's influence that the GOP presidential race's six top-polling candidates agreed to spend Labor Day with him in South Carolina doing interviews for a chance to land the biggest political job of all. The prize: DeMint's endorsement in a primary that's chosen the eventual GOP nominee in every contested White House election going back to Ronald Reagan's upset win in 1980.
"This is not a bachelor forum," DeMint told McClatchy. "It's a forum that will allow them to move beyond talking points and let the people of South Carolina know what they really believe."
Texas Gov. Rick Perry, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia and former Godfather's Pizza CEO Herman Cain of Georgia will follow one another onto the stage for one-on-one exchanges with DeMint. The event will be broadcast live statewide.
In 2008, DeMint was a national chairman for Romney's campaign and touted the former governor's business background. But eventual GOP nominee Sen. John McCain of Arizona won the primary. This year, DeMint said, "I'm just taking a fresh look at all the candidates."
"Their underlying philosophy has got to reflect constitutional limited government," he said. "I'm looking for policies that will reflect a devolution of power out of Washington — not just cutting spending, but changing the federal government to a more limited role that can apply to education, energy, health care and other areas."
His opinion on the candidates matters. DeMint, in an extraordinary show of fundraising clout for a then-first-term senator, collected millions from GOP activists across the country and then disbursed the funds last year to help bring a new generation of outsider conservatives to Washington.
"I have no doubt that if the senator decides to endorse a presidential candidate before the primary, it will have a tremendous impact on Republicans in our state," said GOP National Committeeman Glenn McCall, who heads the York County Republican Party in South Carolina.
DeMint invited only those candidates who averaged at least 5 percent support in recent nationwide polls, a level that former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman and former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania haven't reached.
DeMint, 59, has risen to prominence since 2006 by spearheading the drive against targeted congressional spending known as earmarks, by helping to defeat immigration restructuring and by leading opposition to President Barack Obama's landmark health-insurance law.
Slight of stature and soft-spoken, DeMint rarely shows emotion. A former marketing-firm owner, the Greenville Republican is skilled at branding his political stances, calling the immigration revisions "amnesty" and vowing to make Obama's health-care plan the president's "Waterloo."
Alan Abramowitz, a political science professor at Emory University in Atlanta, said DeMint's endorsement might be diminished because Perry had quickly emerged as the clear favorite to win the South Carolina primary, possibly making the contest's outcome a foregone conclusion.
"As a Southerner and a conservative, Perry strikes me as the sort of candidate who would do very well in South Carolina," Abramowitz said. "We'll see how well he wears — he's only been in the race for a couple weeks — but unless he self-destructs he should be a strong favorite there."
It was no accident that Perry chose Charleston, S.C., from which to launch his national campaign Aug. 13. Former state GOP Chairman Katon Dawson, who's managing Perry's South Carolina operation, said he'd never seen more early enthusiasm for a candidate than he saw when the Texan toured the state after his entry.
Richard Quinn, a veteran Republican operative who's running Huntsman's campaign in the state, cautioned against reading too much into an early favorite's momentum.
Another Texan, former Gov. John Connally, secured the early endorsement of the hugely popular Sen. Strom Thurmond in 1980 and was expected to win the GOP presidential primary. But Reagan bested Connally and eventually won the White House.
"His endorsement will have an impact, but I don't think it will be conclusive," Quinn said of DeMint. "Our electorate likes to meet the candidates, go to their rallies and ask them questions."
DeMint himself downplays the significance of his endorsement.
"I don't think anyone is going to say, 'I'm going to do exactly what Jim DeMint tells me to do,' and I don't want anyone to say that," DeMint said. "I think it's a two-way street, and I'm listening to what South Carolinians and other Americans are saying, too."
DeMint said he'd probably hold off announcing his choice until a month or two before Iowa Republicans convene for caucuses Feb. 6 in the first Republican presidential contest.
DeMint said he might even decide against choosing a favorite.
"Obviously I want to be involved and I want to help our candidate, but I have not made up my mind yet," he said.
DeMint said he was working with Rep. Steve King of Iowa, 2010 Senate candidate Ovide Lamontagne of New Hampshire and other Republican powerbrokers to try to find a "consensus conservative candidate" in the early-primary states. King will attend Monday's event.
Bachmann, who'll compete with Perry for tea party voters, made it clear on a recent visit to Charleston that she'd love DeMint's endorsement.
"As the nominee of the Republican Party, I will not rest until I can elect 13 more Jim DeMints so we can get a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate," Bachmann told hundreds of stalwarts at a rally Aug. 25.
Farther north along the South Carolina coast, Joe Dugan will be watching DeMint's lead closely.
"He understands what a crisis we're in, both fiscally and culturally," said Dugan, a retired manufacturing engineer from Virginia who heads the Myrtle Beach Tea Party. "If he were to endorse a candidate other than the one I had selected, I might take a second look at his candidate. I think that highly of him."
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