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12 in 2012: Jim DeMint Earns His Stripes as Tea Party Power Broker

Senator Tea Party, as Jim DeMint is sometimes known, is a moniker the first-term senator began wearing before the Tea Party became a household name. It's also a description that has pushed the South Carolina Republican out of the shadows and into the forefront of electoral politics.

"I'm proud to be called Senator Tea Party. I feel like I'm giving a voice to people who are very frustrated that Washington's not listening,” DeMint told Fox News.

This fall, DeMint, who was just re-elected to his second term in the Senate, took his commitment to making Washington listen out on the campaign trail – and not merely in his own race. He endorsed high-profile conservatives and donated millions from his political action committee to failed Senate candidates Ken Buck of Colorado, Sharron Angle of Nevada and Christine O’Donnell of Delaware as well as successful contestants Marco Rubio of Florida and Rand Paul of Kentucky.

It’s a success rate that has made people wonder whether the GOP could have done better had DeMint not been so stubborn, but it’s also one that has compelled people to keep a close eye on the Tea Party hero.

Elected to the House in 1998, then to the Senate in 2004, DeMint already had a reputation as a pork buster. In 2008, he stepped forward to vote against the Troubled Assets Relief Program, which turned out to be President Bush’s bank bailout -- a vote many now cite as the moment of conception for the Tea Party movement.

Three months later, DeMint unsuccessfully led the crusade against President Obama’s $814 billion stimulus package, but DeMint remained undaunted.

“It's like blasting rock. It's not graceful,” he said.

DeMint acknowledges the blowback he’s gotten from some colleagues.

“Change comes hard and I have found that the power here is so ingrained, it's so built around the earmark system, we've got a few people throwing out bread to urchins is the way the place looks to me. And I'm just committed to changing it,” he said.

DeMint says despite the strain, friendships are very important to him. But they don’t interfere with his objectives.

“Our oath is not to friendship. Our oath is to a Constitution. and there’s a reason we take that oath because if we don’t believe it, if we don't adhere to it, we're going to run our country into the ground,” he said.

Exit polls last week showed that voters believe the economy is job one for Congress, which he agrees to a point.

“You can't be a fiscal conservative and not be a social conservative. A large part of the expansive government is to take, make up for a dysfunctional society because our culture's falling apart. The family's falling apart,” he said.

As for foreign policy, DeMint cites missile defense and a modernized military as key. But the Tea Party fiscal issues remain the impetus to DeMint’s momentum, and his positioning for a ride on the 2012 presidential wave.

“He probably didn't enter this race or this election year thinking that he would run for president. But you look at how this Tea Party has taken off in America, and he's got to be thinking, ‘I'd be crazy not to think about becoming a candidate myself,’” said David Yepsen, senior political correspondent for The Des Moines Register.

DeMint says he has the management and leadership skills to take the helm, but it is not a job he’s interested in pursuing right now.

“It's going to be a painful job for the next president if they do it right. Taking apart this huge bureaucracy, fighting the government unions, doing the things that have to be done to cut spending and cut the size of the federal government and restore some physical sanity,” he said.

Watch “Special Report With Bret Baier” through Nov. 19 for the series “12 in 2012” -- profiles of potential GOP contenders for the White House.