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Mitt Romney is the favorite to receive Sen. Jim DeMint's (R-S.C.) much-sought-after endorsement in the race for the Republican presidential nomination, according to knowledgeable GOP sources.
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."
In the past few years, DeMint has become somewhat of a national hero among conservative activists. His Senate Conservatives Fund political action committee raised more than $9 million last cycle, much of it spent to help elect tea-party-inspired stalwarts such as GOP Sens. Ron Johnson (Wis.), Rand Paul (Ky.) and Marco Rubio (Fla.). In some instances, DeMint waded into Senate primaries to oppose candidates supported by Senate Republican leaders, much to the delight of the tea party.
This anti-establishment image, and DeMint's popularity among South Carolina Republicans, has elevated the value of his support in a key presidential primary state beyond what it was in 2008. This cycle, DeMint decided not to offer an early endorsement, loosely forming the "keep your powder dry caucus" with an inner circle of supporters as a way to increase South Carolina's importance in the nominating contest and raise the impact of his endorsement.
DeMint told Roll Call on Thursday that he and Romney occasionally trade emails, but he said they haven't talked in some time. South Carolina's junior Senator said he thinks highly of many of the candidates in the race and that the Palmetto State primary remains wide open. That primary is set for Jan. 21, presumably giving DeMint another three months to make his decision.
Asked specifically to comment on Romney's performance thus far, DeMint said: "He's doing really well; he looks like the steady hand in the race. I think he's done well in the debates."