Jim DeMint plans to stay neutral in the Republican presidential primary–at least for now

Holly Bailey

After months of speculation about where his allegiances would fall, South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint says he likely won't endorse a candidate in the Republican presidential primary.

The influential tea party leader tells the Washington Post's Marc Thiessen he'd feel "very comfortable" with any candidate in the current field winning the GOP nomination so he will remain on the sidelines—at least for now.

"As we get into next year, if we have two at the top and one is clearly the conservative and one's not . . . I might look at it again," DeMint told the Post. "But my commitment right now is to stay out of it."

DeMint's decision comes just weeks after rumors circulated that he might throw his backing to Mitt Romney, whom he endorsed in the 2008 election. But DeMint and his aides have strongly denied those rumors, amid worries the senator could alienate tea party backers who have raised concerns about Romney's conservative credentials.

Among other things, conservatives have criticized the health care reform measure Romney signed into law in Massachusetts, which included an individual mandate for coverage. The legislation is similar to President Obama's health care law, and many Republicans—including DeMint—have aired their intense opposition to the federal health-care overhaul.

But DeMint has sent mixed signals about whether Romney's health care law—which he once praised—would disqualify the former Massachusetts governor from a DeMint endorsement this time out. As The Ticket previously reported, DeMint suggested the health care reform wouldn't be a deal breaker—only to have an aide later backtrack, insisting his boss was merely "trying to be nice."

Romney had been wooing DeMint for months, hoping to win his backing ahead of South Carolina's influential first-in-the-South primary. But DeMint's decision to stay neutral—for now, anyway—isn't entirely bad news for Romney, who would prefer to see the senator stay out of the race rather than endorse one of Romney's rivals.

DeMint says he'll campaign for the eventual GOP nominee--but he also hints he won't simply fall in line. He told the Post that one reason he's not endorsing is to give him greater freedom to make sure the nominee, if elected to White House in 2012, holds true to conservative ideals.

"I'm not going to be beholden to anyone," DeMint declared.

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