Tea Party favorite DeMint goes easy on 2012 White House contenders, so far

Conservatives often lament the current field of 2012 prospects. Each potential candidate, they claim, is saddled with significant baggage that makes him or her unacceptable to at least one major wing of the Republican Party.

But there’s one conservative who, oddly enough, has been withholding judgment on the 2012 crop. That’s South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint.

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What makes his optimism particularly striking is his famed dissatisfaction with candidates who either strike him as insufficiently conservative or lacking the personal moral values to frame a strong career in public service.

For example, he told Bloomberg News last year that it would be “bothersome to me just personally” to have a gay in the White House and also told the magazine World that he was “just going to have to create pain” for Republican colleagues who didn’t adhere to what he viewed as fundamental conservatism.

And pain he did, indeed, create for the Republican establishment in 2010, backing scores of insurgent candidates who knocked off party-blessed favorites in primaries across the nation.

But when it comes to the 2012 presidential primary, he’s not only held his fire, he’s also praised numerous potential candidates — many of whom have records that would likely have disqualified them from his support in hypothetical congressional primaries.

Take former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, for instance. Conservatives across the board have slammed him for helping create Massachusetts’s healthcare program and, at one point or another, many leading prospects for the nomination have hit Romney on the issue.

Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee has called the plan a “total disaster,” former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty has attacked it for leading to “out of control” costs and Texas Gov. Rick Perry has questioned whether Romney can survive the primary unless he publicly repudiates his own program.

Yet DeMint, the ostensible gatekeeper of ideological purity, has stayed away from any vociferous attack on Romney or his plan. In fact, during the 2008 presidential primary, he even endorsed Romney — this despite the fact that Romney’s program was already the subject of considerable conservative fire.

For the 2012 cycle, DeMint has yet to commit to Romney again, but told CNN that it’s certainly a possibility.

“Mitt is still near the top of my list of candidates, but I want to look and see who else steps up to the plate,” he said.

It’s difficult to imagine DeMint endorsing a Romney-like candidate in a congressional primary, but he’s certainly leaving the door open in the presidential primary.

And there are even more examples of his ideological generosity to other prime ’12 prospects.

Last month, he vouched for Sen. John Thune’s (R) conservative credentials even though the South Dakota senator voted for the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) and has been a leading proponent of the tax compromise pushed by President Obama and congressional GOP leaders.

Then take the case of former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who has said he won’t be running in 2012 but serves as another useful example of DeMint’s generosity toward potential candidates, however unlikely they are to run.

Bush has taken fire from Republicans for opposing Arizona’s controversial immigration law, but DeMint told the St. Petersburg Times that Bush would probably get his endorsement if he ran.

“He would be a great president. He’d probably be the best on the list if he didn’t have the Bush name … Jeb Bush has been very bold a nd principled, and you never know. If he is interested, I’d sure be interested in talking to him,” DeMint said.

In that interview, he also singled out Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels for praise — the same Mitch Daniels who proposed a 1 percent tax increase on all individuals making over $100,000.

“[Daniels] proved he can manage a state and make some hard decisions, so I think that 2012 might not be the year of charisma. It might be the year of real leadership and management,” DeMint said.

DeMint has also indicated he might be open to supporting New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie for president, telling CNN that he’s “looking for someone that’s almost like a Gov. Christie in New Jersey” and telling MSNBC that Christie is part of a “great list of folks” who might throw their hat in the 2012 ring. In his 2009 gubernatorial primary, Christie had a challenge from the right.

Of course, when it comes down to making his decision, DeMint might sharpen his standards. But for now, the Jim DeMint of the 2012 race hasn’t looked anything like the Jim DeMint of the 2010 cycle. 

Heinze, the founder of GOP12.com, is now a member of staff at The Hill.