DeMint's Endorsement Could Alter Trajectory of GOP Race

DeMint's Endorsement Could Alter Trajectory of GOP Race

By Erin McPike - September 12, 2011

COLUMBIA, S.C. -- Even a cursory understanding of South Carolina Republican politics would lead most observers to believe that Rick Perry is poised to roll to victory in the first-in-the-South presidential primary here next year. He's Southern, he's a devout Christian, he's a farmer, he's conservative and he served in the Air Force.

As Oran Smith, a conservative activist and the president of the Palmetto Family Council, put it: “At this point it would seem to me that Perry wins South Carolina pretty commandingly.” For starters, he said, “Perry, unless he falls on his face, he does project a winner mentality. And I think South Carolinians like the Texas thing.” He added, “Perry manages to attract solid social conservative support without running off the Chamber of Commerce types.”

But one person could change the course of the campaign in South Carolina dramatically and prevent Perry from a decisive victory. Jim DeMint, the state’s junior senator and a Tea Party icon, could back somebody else. In fact, he could support Mitt Romney, just as he did four years ago.

And, as Smith put it, “I don't think I can overstate the importance of Jim DeMint’s influence on the Republican primary.” If he were to back the more moderate Romney, Smith said, it may mean "DeMint's litmus test could possibly have changed."

The two-term senator quickly has become a kingmaker in GOP politics, especially after having helped move the party rightward during the 2010 midterm elections. His support for candidates like Marco Rubio and Rand Paul had establishment types worried when they were trying to steer the electorate toward more tested Republican candidates in last year’s Senate races, but the upper chamber is a more conservative place today as a result of his efforts.

Romney’s record as governor of Massachusetts, complete with the passage of universal health care -- with an individual mandate to purchase coverage -- is still frowned upon by the conservative base. Noting that hitch, Smith said, “Romney would be a harder sell for [DeMint’s] constituency.”

Such an outcome might be surprising, but it isn’t unthinkable.

DeMint has maintained a personal relationship with Romney -- the depth of which isn’t matched by his relationships with the other candidates. He backed Romney early in the 2008 cycle and campaigned with him, including at some events in Iowa in the days prior to the Hawkeye State’s caucuses.

The senator insists he’s starting fresh this cycle and giving every candidate a good look -- and he certainly seems to be doing just that, given his involvement in organizing the Palmetto Freedom Forum here on Labor Day. DeMint invited the presidential candidates who had garnered at least 5 percent nationally in the RealClearPolitics polling average to participate in the forum and air their views on a range of issues.

But witness the last-minute change to the lineup: The original five who agreed to participate were Michele Bachmann, Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich, Ron Paul and Rick Perry; Romney was invited but had declined to attend, citing a scheduling conflict.

Just a few days before the forum, Romney decided he would attend after all. Asked what he did to change Romney’s mind, DeMint told reporters after the event that he traded e-mails with the candidate, encouraging him to attend.

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Erin McPike is a national political reporter for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @ErinMcPike.

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