Conservative Sen. Jim DeMint Thursday praised former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich for the Wednesday night debate performances, though he stuck to his pledge not to endorse any single Republican this primary season.
DeMint, speaking on CBS "The Early Show," said Romney and Gingrich "excelled in a lot of ways. They had real clarity of vision and policies but I think this thing has changed from week to week and we may see some different standouts on sat."
"That's why I've decided not to endorse and to focus on the Senate conservatives' plan; it's really important that we have a Senate that can work with our next president."
DeMint, a staunch conservative and Tea Party activist, gave Romney an early endorsement in the 2008 election. This year, however, he has encouraged his fellow Republicans to hold off on endorsements and has said he is not going to endorse any candidates in this year's primary race. Romney is not popular with the conservative Tea Party wing of the Republican party. Not endorsing any of the candidates gives DeMint greater leverage to influence all of them as they court voters in the key early state of South Carolina.
On Wednesday, he said he was staying focused on getting conservatives elected to the Senate in 2012.
"The grassroots conservatives around the country have not selected a candidate, and I don't want to weigh into that fray and divide my attention from what I'm doing with the Senate Conservatives fund," he said. "So I'm going to sit back and watch. I want to encourage the candidates to take stronger positions about what we need to do at the federal level to cut spending and reduce the role of the federal government in our economy and our culture."
While DeMint said the debate "made a good impression on me overall," he conceded that Rick Perry's performance - particularly his inability to name the three federal agencies he had pledged to eliminate if president - made him cringe.
"Normally that would not be a problem," DeMint said, of the flub, but he added that "obviously he had some problems in previous debates."
"It wasn't good -- but I don't want to pronounce the end of his campaign at this point," he added. "I just think we saw some other standouts and there is still time for the candidates to change positions."
Still, he applauded that "the candidates really didn't go after each other like we've seen in the past."
"I thought we heard a good message out of our candidates last night," he added. "I think when we get to Saturday with the CBS debate near my hometown, that we'll see these candidates have a chance to talk in more detail about foreign policy, big issues. I think it's starting to make our candidates look pretty good."