COLUMBIA, S.C. — Sen. Jim DeMint, one of the most sought-after endorsements in this Republican presidential primary season, urged his supporters Monday to withhold their support from candidates and "continue to listen."
DeMint's comments came after he moderated a two-hour forum at the Columbia Metropolitan Convention Center, in which the Greenville Republican personally questioned five of the leading GOP candidates on health care, federal spending and the national debt.
But afterward, DeMint said he was not any closer to making up his mind.
If anything, he said, the event prompted more questions for him than answers.
"I would encourage folks who have not already made a commitment to continue to listen, because many times what we think of these candidates has been defined for us either by their opponents or the media before we ever get a chance to meet them," DeMint told said during a discussion after the forum.
But while DeMint did not endorse Monday, some other South Carolina politicians have weighed in.
— U.S. Rep. Mick Mulvaney and S.C. Rep. Alan Clemmons, R-Horry, endorsed Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who withdrew from Monday's forum so he could return to Texas to deal with the wildfires.
— State Treasurer Curtis Loftis endorsed former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, saying he has "the highest likelihood of beating Barack Obama."
But do endorsements matter?
Consider South Carolina's history with Republican presidential candidates.
S.C. Republican primary voters correctly have chosen the party's nominee every election cycle since 1980, although those choices have not always been the choice of the Palmetto state's political establishment.
In 1980, when the former actor turned California governor Ronald Reagan was running for president, U.S. Sen Strom Thurmond endorsed former Texas Gov. John Connally.
"I remember Strom stumping around the state not just endorsing Connally, but I mean traveling with him on a bus almost in every crossroad in South Carolina ... I mean, Strom easily then was the most popular political figure in the state," said Neal Thigpen, a political science professor at Francis Marion University. "And Reagan thumped the whole field of them."
Just three years ago, DeMint endorsed Romney — who would go on to finish fourth in South Carolina's primary, behind Fred Thompson.
But things have changed.
DeMint raised millions of dollars through his political action committee to elect conservative senators in several states, including Marco Rubio in Florida, who overcame a double-digit deficit in the polls to win the nomination over the incumbent governor of his party.Now, candidates are wooing DeMint, believing his endorsement would push them to the front of a crowded field.
"In South Carolina, it's been awhile since a major endorsement mattered," said Katon Dawson, former chairman of the S.C. Republican party and an adviser to Perry's S.C. presidential campaign. "(DeMint's) conservative presence went from a small microphone to a large megaphone. And people are listening to what he has to say."
Even Mulvaney — who spoke to Perry on a cell phone in the convention center hallway just moments after endorsing him — acknowledged that his endorsement doesn't mean much.
But a DeMint endorsement, Mulvaney said, would be a game changer.
"If I was an undecided Republican voter and I got a phone call from Senator DeMint for a particular candidate, that would sway me," he said.
Presidential candidates vying for the nomination know this, too — and they know South Carolina's importance, given the primary's status as the "First in the South" and its history of picking winners.
It's why candidate Michele Bachmann held a news conference in Columbia two months ago to sign the "cut, cap and balance" pledge that DeMint has turned into a litmus test for his support.
It's why Romney changed his schedule at the last minute to appear in Monday's forum after originally declining the invitation because of a scheduling conflict.
And it's why Perry, who was returning to Texas as the forum was getting under way, tried to participate in the forum anyway via telephone. That option was eventually scrapped.
Perry did appear in South Carolina Monday morning, though, participating in a town hall-type meeting in Myrtle Beach hosted by U.S. Rep. Tim Scott, considered another prized endorsement among South Carolina's conservatives.
When asked if he would support term limits, Perry responded: "I am not a fan of term limits. Why would you limit him?", and then pointing to Scott.
The audience applauded, but Scott just hung his head and grinned.