ABC News’ Michael Falcone reports:
DES MOINES, Iowa -- Call it the DeMint primary of 2012.
The South Carolina senator who became a thorn in the side of Republican leaders in 2010 by promoting the candidacies of conservative Senate candidates over more moderate establishment picks traveled to Iowa this weekend signaling that he intended to exert his influence once again in 2012.
Sen. Jim DeMint, who delivered a keynote speech at the Conservative Principles Conference here, reminded voters in this crucial early nominating state that he's made it his “business in the last couple of years to help choose and support conservatives.”
“I know you’re going to help us pick the right candidate for 2012,” he told an audience of several hundred GOP activists who gathered to hear him as well as a handful of potential presidential candidates deliver pitches on Saturday.
DeMint laid out a series of litmus tests that he said should help conservatives in Iowa and across the country decide on a candidate to support next year.
“If you want to know which presidential candidate is on your side, watch what they do with the debates in Congress now. As we’re talking about how much to cut in this continuing resolution for the balance of this year -- and some propose that we cut more -- see what these candidates say,” DeMint said. “Are they taking a bold stand to challenge Republicans to keep their promises from the election? When we talk about a balanced budget amendment, are they advocating with us or are they sitting on the sidelines? When we’re debating whether or not to raise the debt ceiling where do these candidates stand? If you want to know which ones are on your side, see what they say publicly over the next several months and the next year about the debates in Congress about foreign policy and intervention in Libya.”
Before his speech DeMint said that current crop of presidential candidates could change significantly over the next few months, even suggesting that a “whole new cast of Republican candidates” might emerge.
On Saturday night he highlighted the work of three Republican governors -- Chris Christie of New Jersey, Rick Scott of Florida and Scott Walker of Wisconsin -- saying that each of them has stood up to special interests and unions “against incredible odds.”
“It inspires people,” DeMint added, without saying whether he planned to encourage any of the three to throw their hat into the presidential ring in 2012. For his part, DeMint began his speech by saying, “I’m not planning on running for president of the United States.”
The South Carolina Republican said the country needs a president who takes a limited view of the responsibilities of government.
“He’s not the leader of our families, of our communities, of our states,” DeMint said. “The president of the United States needs to fulfill the Constitutional responsibility to maintain a limited government. It’s a different view than I think we’ve started expecting from our presidents.”
Several potential candidates, including Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann and Georgia businessman Herman Cain were on hand in Des Moines this weekend for the conservative gathering, organized by another lawmaker who could play an important role in boosting the fortunes of candidates in Iowa -- Rep. Steve King, who represents the state’s fifth Congressional district.
“Do they have the courage to live free?” DeMint said of the current field of contenders. “You’ll find out in a hurry, I think, in the next few months."