DeMint won't rule out backing Romney

Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) isn’t ready yet to cut Mitt Romney loose following the Republican presidential candidate’s defense of his Massachusetts healthcare plan last week.

DeMint, the conservative kingmaker who had endorsed Romney for the nomination in 2008, said that he hadn’t yet ruled out endorsing Romney again in 2012 — or for that matter any other candidate.

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“I haven’t stricken anybody off my list, or put anybody on it, really,” DeMint said. “And it’s going to be several months before I look at endorsing.”

A source close to the Palmetto State conservative had emphasized in March that DeMint “would never consider” endorsing Romney again unless he were to admit that the healthcare reform plan he installed as governor of Massachusetts was “a colossal mistake.”

Romney did just about everything but that during a high-profile speech last week in Michigan, where he stood by his healthcare plan, warts and all.

“I presume that a lot of folks would think that if I did that, it would be good for me politically ... But there’s only one problem with that: It wouldn’t be honest,” Romney said. “I, in fact, did what I think was right for the people of my state.”

DeMint said he had “respect” for Romney for addressing the issue head on, and explained that a lot more than healthcare would play into his endorsement decision.

“I’m not going to put conditions on people, but we’ve got to let the candidates play things out, and there’s going to be more than one issue in the campaign,” he said. “Healthcare’s certainly important, but the debt ceiling’s important, the balanced-budget amendment’s important. I want to see where the candidates come down on those issues.”

While Romney has endured some criticism from conservatives for his speech — which defended the individual insurance mandate on the state level, but assailed it on a federal level — Republicans on Capitol Hill aren’t ready yet to close the book on his campaign.

“I give him great credit for getting out and taking it on, head-on. Clearly he’s demonstrated that he’s willing to focus on that issue,” said Sen. John Thune (S.D.), who passed on seeking the Republican nomination earlier this year.

Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), one of the GOP’s top voices in the healthcare battle, is pleased that Romney embraced the idea of issuing waivers for Obama’s law, a position Barrasso has long supported.

“I agree when Mitt Romney says that the first thing he’s going to do as president is give everyone a waiver from the healthcare law,” he said. “That’s what I’ve been saying for over a year.”

Some Republicans said they weren’t very familiar with what Romney said; Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) said he hadn’t seen the address, as did Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who noted that “most Republicans are probably not supportive of a mandate.”

And not all Republicans were impressed. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), whose father, Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas), is running for president, said he thought Romney — and, for that matter, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) — would have a hard time winning the Republican nomination after having expressed support for mandating on the state level that individuals buy insurance.

That mandate, which is the linchpin of both Romney’s and Obama’s laws, is considered Romney’s biggest political obstacle to winning the nomination. The former governor’s campaign wanted to address the issue before the primary campaign begins in earnest — and before influential opinion makers, such as Capitol Hill Republicans, had made their endorsement decisions.

“It’s hard for him to go back on what they did,” said Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), a longtime supporter of Romney’s presidential ambitions. “I think he was honest — that’s the most important point. He was honest.”

— Michael O’Brien