WASHINGTON -- Sen. Jim DeMint on Wednesday backed away from his previous ironclad insistence that he had no interest in running for president and was focused only on helping to elect conservatives to the U.S. Senate.
DeMint, a Greenville, S.C, Republican in his second Senate term, has become a conservative hero to activists across the country for his staunch opposition to federal spending, immigration reform and President Barack Obama’s health insurance law.
DeMint was asked repeatedly by a reporter Wednesday whether, in the wake of former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney’s defeat in the Nov. 6 election, he is weighing a White House run in 2016. Each time DeMint declined to reject the possibility.
“I’m not even thinking about it now,” DeMint told McClatchy in response to the last query about his political ambitions.
The lawmaker known as Senator Tea Party responded with quips to the earlier questions Wednesday.
“I don’t even know how much the (president’s) salary is,” DeMint said.
Told it was $400,000 a year, he quipped: “Is that all?”
Those responses were in marked contrast to his emphatic denials in early 2011 when some conservative leaders were trying to persuade him to run for president.
When CNN anchor Wolf Blitzer asked him in February 2011 whether he was eyeing a White House campaign, DeMint gave a one-word answer: “No.”
Expanding on that response in an interview with McClatchy a week later, DeMint said, “I have no plans to run (for president). I’m focused on fighting in the Senate to save our country from fiscal catastrophe and helping elect more principled conservatives to join the fight.”
The Senate Conservatives Fund that DeMint established has raised millions of dollars for conservative candidates, several of whom have been elected and become influential Republican senators, among them Sens. Marco Rubio of Florida and Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania.
But some conservative analysts and Republican leaders have blamed DeMint for backing candidates who won Senate primaries but lost in the 2010 and 2010 general elections, costing the party seats it could have gained.
Steve Scheffler, a Republican National Committee member from Iowa and an evangelical leader, was among the influential figures from early-primary states who had encouraged DeMint to join the 2012 presidential race.
DeMint on Wednesday also appeared to soften his previous pledge not to seek a third Senate term in 2016, declining to repeat past avowals that his current term will be his last.
“I’m not ruling anything out,” he said.
His responses indicated that, whether he seeks re-election to the Senate or runs for president, DeMint may not be prepared to leave the national political stage in four years as he had previously insisted.