According to Roll Call’s “knowledgeable GOP sources,” conservative stalwart Senator Jim DeMint may endorse Mitt Romney for President:
DeMint, who endorsed the former Massachusetts governor in 2008, made clear in an interview late last week that he has made no decisions on whom he will support in the 2012 primary. But Republican operatives familiar with the DeMint-Romney relationship and privy to the conservative Senator’s private assessment of the GOP field believe Romney is the most likely candidate to receive the backing of the tea party favorite.
“Jim is far more likely to endorse Mitt than anyone else currently in the race,” a Republican with South Carolina ties said. “Jim is a business guy and that’s his background. He’s not really the good ol’ boy conservative type. So Mitt in a lot of ways is a more comfortable fit for him.”
“Jim actually likes Romney,” added a GOP operative based in the Palmetto State. “I think, politically, he had some doubts about his ability to engage conservatives, but it would not surprise me for Jim to endorse Romney at some point.”
According to my knowledgeable on-the-record source Wesley Denton, DeMint’s spokesman, the story is a “fabrication”:
“That story is a fabrication made up of anonymous sources that obviously have no clue what Senator DeMint is thinking. He has said over and over again that he is not leaning toward any candidate yet and may end up not endorsing in the presidential race.”
DeMint did endorse Romney early in the 2008 cycle, but that was a different set of circumstances with a much different set of candidates. In 2008, Republicans wanted a conservative alternative to John McCain, and Romney was seen at the time as the most logical choice — all the way through to CPAC 2008, where conservatives were crushed by Romney’s concession to McCain. In 2012’s field, Romney looks much more like the establishment-moderate choice, with everyone else in the race competing for the conservative-alternative position — what I’ve called the Not-Romney role. It makes sense that DeMint wants to wait to see who emerges in that latter role before endorsing someone — or bothering to endorse anyone.
Of course, this doesn’t mean DeMint doesn’t like Romney at all, or wouldn’t support him if he won the nomination. DeMint paid a visit to NRO this summer and still had praise for Romney, although calling someone a “good candidate” isn’t exactly singing hosannas. He might well decide at some point that Romney’s the only man still left who can take out Obama in a general election, which as a sitting Senator has to be DeMint’s highest priority in the 2012 cycle. The question that would come from a hypothetical DeMint endorsement of Romney would be whether it would hurt DeMint’s standing with conservatives as much as it would help Romney’s standing with them.
Update: Politico gets a strong reaction from the man who runs DeMint’s Senate Conservatives Fund:
Matt Hoskins, who runs DeMint’s Senate Conservatives Fund, said DeMint is “looking to see who wins over the grassroots, and so far Governor Romney has not done that.”
“These operatives don’t know what they’re talking about. Senator DeMint is not leaning toward anyone at this point,” Hoskins said of the story this morning.
That fits into my analysis above, presuming that DeMint would at least wait to see who the most viable Not-Romney turns out to be before making an endorsement either way.