By Alexander Bolton - 06/01/11 10:00 AM EDT
Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) says he is considering running for president after frustrated conservative activists have pleaded with him to run.
DeMint told The Hill that he has discussed a White House bid with his wife and will pray on the question out of respect for his supporters across the country.
Many on the right have expressed major reservations about the GOP candidates in the race, claiming they have not energized the base and/or can’t beat President Obama.
The second-term senator would have the inside track to win South Carolina, a key early state in the nomination process. Since 1980, every Republican who has triumphed in the Palmetto State has gone on to capture the GOP presidential nomination.
Some conservative activists compare DeMint to former Sen. Barry Goldwater (R-Ariz.) and former President Reagan, predicting he could quickly unify social and fiscal conservatives.
DeMint insists he has no plans to run. But he won’t dismiss the growing calls for him to enter the contest.
“It’s humbling and out of respect, my wife and I have talked about it,” DeMint said late last week of a possible White House bid. “Out of respect for the people who have asked us to think about this, that’s what we’re going to do. I don’t want to imply that I’m changing in mind, but I want to consider what all these folks are doing.”
Without a doubt, DeMint would face significant hurdles if he launched an eleventh-hour bid. Throughout his political career, DeMint has not been shy in confronting major players in the Republican Party on a wide range of issues. His candidacy would not be popular in Washington, though that dynamic could also be used as an asset on the campaign trail.
There are also questions as to whether he could attract independent voters in a general-election match-up against Obama.
Two GOP factions have begun to draft DeMint for a presidential run.
One is organized by Richard Viguerie, a conservative pioneer in the field of direct-mail political marketing, who helped Reagan win election in 1980.
The other is Conservatives4DeMint, which claims to have about 4,700 members and regional coordinators in 35 states.
Viguerie held a Saturday conference call with allies to plan the initial stages of the draft movement.
“I’ve asked him about the presidential thing twice in the last five or six weeks,” Viguerie said of his recent conversations with DeMint.
“I think he’s giving it serious consideration. Hopefully this will push him over the line and give him the encouragement that there would be a strong base of support,” Viguerie added.
He said DeMint compares to Goldwater in 1964, whom conservatives drafted to challenge President Johnson, and Reagan in 1976 and 1980 respectively.
“He would be the dominant movement conservative leader,” Viguerie said. “He would be the front-runner overnight.”
Angela Toft, national director of Conservatives4DeMint, said the group launched in January after DeMint supporters began corresponding through Facebook. What began as a local fan club in California soon gained national membership.
“A groundswell erupted,” she said.
Toft said DeMint caught people’s attention by supporting conservative candidates such as Florida Sen. Marco Rubio (R), Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul (R) and California Senate candidate Chuck DeVore through his leadership committee, the Senate Conservatives Fund.
Toft said, “I know Sen. DeMint has no personal ambition to be president, but I hope he will answer the call of the American people and run.”
DeMint, 59, said everything would have to fall into place for him to launch a campaign.
“It would take an extraordinary set of circumstances for me to get in. I’ve learned not to rule out anything in life,” he said.
DeMint has already traveled to Iowa and New Hampshire to participate in candidate forums. He’s looking into having a candidates’ forum in South Carolina, as well, but has not set a date.
He said the purpose of these meetings is to pick a principled, conservative nominee in 2012.
“What I’m trying to do in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina is to encourage people to wait, not endorse candidates early,” he said.
DeMint wants conservative activists to wait, before pledging support, to see what positions candidates such as former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney say about the debt ceiling, a balanced-budget amendment and spending levels.
“What I want to be able to do is offer the right candidate a broad consensus of voters in these three early states that have waited,” he said.
DeMint endorsed Romney in 2008.
Some DeMint backers point out that the junior senator from South Carolina is one of the few conservatives in the GOP who is willing to take on his own party’s leadership. As a House member in 2003, DeMint rebuffed then-President George W. Bush by opposing an expansion of Medicare to include a prescription drug benefit.
DeMint also took on Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) over earmarks in the 111th Congress. McConnell, a longtime member of the Appropriations Committee, resisted DeMint’s proposal to establish a moratorium on earmarks. DeMint persisted, despite facing criticism within the GOP conference. He later triumphed, when his GOP colleagues adopted an earmark ban late last year.
DeMint broke with party leaders again last year when he backed Rubio in the Florida Republican primary while National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman John Cornyn (Texas) supported former Gov. Charlie Crist, who later switched to become an Independent.
He defied McConnell in the 2010 Kentucky GOP primary by endorsing Paul after McConnell made clear he was behind former Kentucky Secretary of State Trey Grayson. Paul defeated Grayson before winning the general election last fall.
DeMint is a proven fundraiser. He raised $9.3 million through the Senate Conservatives Fund in the 2010 election cycle, disbursing it to an array of conservatives, including Paul, Rubio and Senate freshmen Pat Toomey (R-Pa.), Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) and Mike Lee (R-Utah).
The fund has raised $1.2 million so far this year, according to its website.