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Romney’s decision to forgo DeMint forum spells out more of his 2012 strategy

On Wednesday, Mitt Romney’s campaign announced that the former Massachusetts governor would not be attending a presidential forum hosted by Sen. Jim Demint (R-S.C.). A spokesperson for the Romney campaign told the Washington Post that Romney would be concentrating most of his efforts on campaigning in New Hampshire.

In rejecting the invitation, Romney is almost certainly giving up any chance of an endorsement from DeMint, who is considered the most influential Republican in the state. Moreover, he is also imperiling any potential support from many of the South Carolina Republican leaders who have joined DeMint in a “Keep the Powder Dry” caucus, a group that has committed to withholding their endorsements until the presidential forum, which will be held September 5.

DeMint, who endorsed Romney early in the 2008 cycle, has voiced regret about preemptively lending the weight of his support before the primary campaign had played out. His influence has only grown since then as he has taken a leading role in the tea party rump faction in the Senate, and has become one of the main proponents of the “Cut, Cap and Balance” legislation.

Whether or not Romney has a chance among the Southern, tea party Republicans that DeMint has influence over is uncertain. Since the passage of the Affordable Care Act, which mirrored at the federal level the health care plan that Romney signed into law at the state level in Massachusetts, conservatives have consistently expressed skepticism at Romney’s candidacy. The flagship conservative magazine National Review, which endorsed Romney in 2008, expressed these sentiments best when they condemned Romney months ago for his health care record (despite the fact that this record hadn’t changed in the four years since the magazine endorsed him).

Now Rick Perry, who has a much more conservative record than Romney but is also considered more electable than Michele Bachmann or Ron Paul, had gotten into the race. He is the frontrunner in national polls, and as a Southern governor, the South Carolina primary is seen as Perry’s best route to the nomination.

Nevertheless, it remains to be seen how viable Perry will remain as national media scrutiny of him intensifies on the campaign trail. Barry Wynn, a former GOP state party chair and treasurer of DeMint’s political action committee, told TAI last month that the South Carolina GOP primary has consistently chosen viability over a perfect conservative record, despite repeated assurances by political pundits that “this time is different.” He predicted that the trend would continue in 2012, the influence of the tea party notwithstanding.

South Carolina has picked the winner of the GOP nomination every election cycle since 1980. Romney’s decision to prioritize New Hampshire over South Carolina, however, shows that perhaps that trend might not continue in 2012, particularly if Perry turns out to be a weaker candidate than his poll numbers currently indicate.

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