Updated: 3:20 p.m.
Conservative Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) declined Thursday to rule out endorsing third-party candidates for Senate in Nevada and other states in 2010, warning that voters will have no choice but to abandon the GOP if it does not field strong conservatives.
When asked whether he would support "tea party" candidates in states such as Nevada, where Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) is facing an uphill battle for a fifth term, or elsewhere, DeMint said he would if GOP candidates are not conservative enough. "That's the last resort," DeMint said, adding that "if Republicans only have one choice ... then they're going to look towards a third-party candidate."
Tea party activists in Nevada are hoping to field a candidate against Reid, who is trailing his prospective GOP Republican rivals in most public opinion polls. Democrats breathed a sigh of relief earlier this week when word of the potential third-party candidacy leaked out, believing a tea party candidate would likely divide GOP voters and help Reid's bid.
DeMint also said he has no interest in running for president in 2012 at this point and is focused on this year's elections. When asked whether his speech was an indication of presidential aspirations, DeMint said, "No, I'm not thinking about it. I'm thinking about 2010."
DeMint made his comments following a speech at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference, where he repeatedly chided Republicans for not backing strict conservatives.
"Despite the clarion call for freedom from the American people, there is still a struggle within the Republican Party about who we are and what we stand for. It's a fight between those who take their constitutional oath seriously and those who don't," DeMint told the crowd at the Washington Marriott Wardman Park hotel.
DeMint also defended his advocacy on behalf of ideologically conservative candidates.
"I've been criticized by some of my Republican colleagues for saying I'd rather have 30 Republicans in the Senate who believe in the principles of freedom than 60 who don't believe in anything," DeMint noted.
"I'm afraid we're causing a little trouble for the establishment. You see, I believe in holding incumbent Republican Senators accountable to the principles that we all say we believe in. When Republican Senators don't do the things they say they believe, voters should have a choice of a new Republican ... a real Republican," he said.
DeMint also used the speech to attack Democrats and President Barack Obama.
"We now see all too clearly that the hope and change the Democrats had in mind was nothing more than a retread of the failed and discredited socialist policies that have been the enemy of freedom for centuries all over the world," DeMint said.
In a phone conversation later, DeMint tried to backtrack on his earlier comments about supporting third-party candidates, saying that he personally has no plans to endorse them.
"I don't have any plans in being involved with any third party. ... I have no interest in a third party," he said. DeMint said he would back GOP nominees for the Senate irrespective of if he had endorsed them in their primaries.