Richard Shiro, File, Associated Press
COLUMBIA, S.C. — In the 2012 Republican nominating contest, Sen. Jim DeMint is like the pretty girl all the boys want to take to the prom. Nearly every GOP presidential candidate has come a-courting the South Carolina Republican ahead of his state's Jan. 21 primary.
A dean of the influential and well-funded tea party movement, DeMint has made it clear he's sitting this one out.
The senator suggests he's not feeling that special attraction to any of the candidates, whether it be front-runner Mitt Romney or one of his rivals, or feeling peer pressure to pair up for the big dance. Instead, he has his eye on another class of candidate entirely — those aiming to win enough Senate seats to flip the chamber from Democratic to Republican control.
"My priority is the Senate," DeMint said this week in an interview, adding that it doesn't matter who is elected president if Republicans don't get a Senate majority. He's again turning to his political action committee, Senate Conservatives Fund, to help candidates he wants to see elected to the Senate.
"I have the ability to raise $10 (million) or $15 million to elect some senators and that's how I think I can help the next president. So that's what I want to do," he said. "As soon as I get involved with one (presidential) candidate, I've got 80 percent of my supporters mad at me."
Still, for all of DeMint's efforts not to get dragged into the GOP presidential race, he waded into it on Tuesday with a prediction.
"I think Romney's going to win here," DeMint, 60, told South Carolina conservative radio host Mark Levin.
There are other signs that DeMint is warm to Romney. The senator's political adviser, Warren Tompkins, and former top aide, Luke Byars, are working on the candidate's behalf. And some close to DeMint, who endorsed Romney in 2008, say he's quietly telling people that he's backing Romney and they should, too.
In public, he'll only go so far. "I don't have anything against Mitt Romney or any of the candidates," he says. "I think we've got a good slate. I don't see any of them as unacceptable." He says he worries that endorsing one candidate might alienate supporters of the others.
Whether coy or genuine, DeMint's demurral hasn't discouraged his pursuers as the Republican political machinery rumbles south from New Hampshire. South Carolina's famously nasty nomination contest has proved decisive in the past; the winner has become the GOP's presidential nominee every time since 1980.
Romney faces challenges from Texas Rep. Ron Paul, former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, former Sen. Rick Santorum and Texas Gov. Rick Perry. Nearly every one of them has wooed DeMint.
A nod from the former ad executive could mean millions of campaign dollars in campaign donations. And it could help send an underdog to Washington, as DeMint's endorsement did in 2010 for Sens. Marco Rubio of Florida and Rand Paul of Kentucky.
That explains why DeMint's name keeps popping up — in glowing terms — on the presidential campaign trail.
Perry told an audience Tuesday that he wants DeMint on his team.
"Jim DeMint is a conservative icon and he's well respected and his opinion matters here," said Katon Dawson, the former state GOP chairman running Perry's South Carolina campaign.
On that, Romney's camp agrees.
"If there's a kingmaker, it's Jim DeMint," said State Treasurer Curtis Loftis, Romney's chairman.
It wasn't long ago that DeMint was ignored and even shunned by prominent Republicans.
Elected to the Senate in 2004, he made no friends in the collegial chamber when he scolded fellow Republicans for the party's dismal performance in the 2008 elections.
Two years later, he marshaled enough money to step past more senior Republicans and support his preferred candidates in home-state battles for Senate. Paul and Rubio were DeMint's success stories. Other DeMint candidates, such as Delaware's Christine O'Donnell, defeated the establishment's choice in the Republican primary but lost the general election.
Some in the GOP complained that while DeMint's activities may have won like-minded conservatives several seats in Congress, they also enabled Democrats to keep some vulnerable seats and maintain their majority.
This year, DeMint says he has no interest in playing kingmaker in the presidential race.
"Why he would sit this out and not get involved surprises me," said Tim Brett, a former state legislator and longtime GOP strategist.
Others say this is typical DeMint. "He's never really believed that just endorsing someone really helps that much," said Barry Wynn, a former state GOP chairman who backs Perry.
DeMint has been down the presidential endorsement road before. In 2008, he charged into the race by endorsing Romney, a notable move for someone already known as one of the Senate's staunchest conservatives. Romney lost the nomination to Sen. John McCain.
DeMint says he expects his network of wealthy and influential South Carolina donors to be more vocal during the next week.
"A lot of them want to get involved," he said. "I think you'll see some support Mitt and some Newt and some Perry. I'm certainly not giving them directions."
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