WASHINGTON — Sen. Jim DeMint's keynote speech next month to an Iowa forum of GOP presidential candidates has fueled hopes among evangelicals and conservative activists that the South Carolina Republican will launch a White House run.
DeMint, overwhelmingly elected to his second Senate term in November, will deliver the evening banquet address to a dozen GOP presidential hopefuls — and hundreds of party stalwarts — on March 26 in Des Moines, scarcely 10 months before the state's leadoff White House caucuses.
In the audience will be Steve Scheffler, a Republican National Committee member from Iowa and an influential evangelical.
Scheffler would like to see DeMint, dubbed "the tea party senator" for his unyielding conservatism and fervent opposition to President Barack Obama, throw his hat into the Oval Office ring.
"He's very highly regarded among activists," Scheffler said. "His running would add a lot to the dialogue, not only in Iowa but across the country. I think he's a voice that needs to be heard."
Scheffler is among a growing number of Republican national committeemen who inquire about DeMint's intentions in talks with Glenn McCall, who represents South Carolina on the RNC.
"He's extremely well liked by movement conservatives and tea party types across the United States," McCall said. "He definitely would have a lot of support if he ran. I hope that he's seriously considering it and doesn't rule it out entirely."
A DeMint presidential bid could be jumpstarted by South Carolina's early Republican primary — the exact date hasn't been set — which in recent elections has come on the heels of intraparty voting in Iowa and New Hampshire.
DeMint is ahead of the presidential pack in his home state with 24 percent support, followed by former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee at 20 percent, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney at 17 percent and former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin at 12 percent, according to a poll released last week by Public Policy Polling, a Democratic-affiliated Raleigh, N.C., firm.
To all this buzz, DeMint appears to be deaf.
Or at least hard of hearing.
In an interview on national TV last week, DeMint gave a one-word response — "No" — when CNN anchor Wolf Blitzer asked if he's weighing a White House run.
DeMint expanded on that answer in an interview with McClatchy.
"I have no plans to run," he said. "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."
Saying he absolutely intends "to be part of the debate," DeMint said the country is at a crossroads because of exploding federal deficits.
"We need to find a candidate who is willing to tell the American people the truth — government must do less, not more," DeMint said. "I'm going to do everything I can to ensure that the Republican nominee for president is a person willing to make the hard decisions to save our freedoms and put our nation back on the path to prosperity."
Just a few years ago, DeMint was virtually unknown outside South Carolina, a soft-spoken former House member and marketing firm owner who was eclipsed by the state's senior senator and fellow Republican, Lindsey Graham.
In December 2006, DeMint blocked a massive spending bill for weeks until congressional leaders from both parties agreed to strip out $10 billion in earmarked spending on special projects.
Since then, DeMint has led the anti-earmark drive that produced the new moratorium on the appropriations carve-outs — and to Obama's pledge to veto spending bills with them.
In summer 2007, DeMint branded an immigration overhaul bill "amnesty" and galvanized conservative outrage that helped defeat major Senate legislation.
Two years later, DeMint again drew national attention with his pledge to make Obama's drive to expand health insurance the president's "Waterloo." Though he lost that battle, DeMint is now at the forefront of Republican efforts to overturn the law.
Perhaps most significantly, DeMint's Senate Conservatives Fund distributed $9.3 million to conservative GOP candidates last year — some of them running against establishment choices in bitter Republican primaries.
Five DeMint-backed candidates, all closely tied to tea party activists, won election to the Senate in November, increasing his clout and giving him a small army of loyal followers.
"Senator DeMint had the courage to endorse me when nobody thought I could win," said newcomer Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., a rising star in the GOP.
DeMint's talk of having "no plans to run" for president is just the kind of less-than-absolute, non-denial denial that translates into "I'm not ruling it out" in the political echo chamber of Washington.
"I know he says he's not thinking about running, but the door may be open," said Scheffler, the Iowa evangelical leader and RNC committeeman. "There's some talk that he still may run."