**UPDATED**

There are fewer people more important on the Tea Party side of Republican politics than Sen. Jim DeMint. With 2012 revving up, he’s the first to come to the defense of Mitt Romney. From The Hill:

…But leading conservatives, including supporters of Romney during his 2008 presidential run, argue that the Massachusetts plan isn’t a deal-breaker.

“One of the reasons I endorsed Romney [in 2008] is his attempts to make private health insurance available at affordable prices,” said Sen. Jim DeMint (S.C.), a GOP kingmaker.

DeMint blames Democrats in the Massachusetts State Legislature for adding many of the features to Romney’s plan that many on the right decry. …

There are many more joining DeMint, including former Sen. Judd Gregg who says he’s still “a big fan” of Romney. This is important to Mitt Romney’s chances, but also to Republican hopes of not getting blown out in 2012.

One connected Democratic insider I spoke to said it best:

“If Romney can get through the primaries, he’s very dangerous. Obama has never faced a politically competent Republican before. …”

That’s really Romney’s whole ballgame in a nutshell.

Others are pointing to Gallup’s recent polling showing there’s a chance for Republicans in 2012. As I’ve written before, if they had a Reagan they’d beat Obama in a walk, but they don’t.

Considering the wacky Republicans jumping into the 2012 race so far, at least some conservatives have decided that following Rush Limbaugh down the tubes is not the best idea.

UPDATE: Well, this didn’t take long:

Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) “would never consider” endorsing former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney for president again in 2012 unless Romney repudiates the health reforms he sought as governor, a source close to DeMint said Thursday. A source close to the conservative icon emphasized that, despite comments to The Hill indicating that Romney shouldn’t shoulder all the political blame for the Massachusetts healthcare plan, DeMint wouldn’t endorse Romney again unless he admits the plan was mistaken.DeMint won’t back Romney without repudiation of Mass. health law