The dark horse for the Republican presidential nomination in 2012 is not former Sen. Rick Santorum, though he is seriously considering a bid, nor is it Sen. John Thune, who has given the matter less thought but whose name is brought up by the conserveoscienti: it's Sen. Jim DeMint, the Republican from South Carolina.
DeMint, in this scenario, would run as a spoiler/insurgent candidate in 2012, setting himself up for a full-on presidential run in 2016. DeMint, running in 2012, would knock Sarah Palin out of the primaries, crushing any momentum she received out of Iowa ... even though DeMint would be the obvious homestate favorite, Palin needs a victory in South Carolina to acquire momentum for later contests in larger states with less conservative electorates. (It's not that South Carolina is less conservative, it's that it's seen as part of the process.) Anyway, if Mitt Romney or Tim Pawlenty wanted help, they could find a way to...persuade DeMint to run a spoiler's campaign in Iowa and South Carolina...and then find an elegant way to drop out...positioning himself perhaps as a vice presidential candidate (obsessed with spending and the deficit, well-made to make sure that Southern white voters turn out, balancing the ticket).
In any event, DeMint could become the conservative front-runner in 2016 -- even though the likes of Jon Huntsman, Jr. (who still has presidential ambitions, all the way from China), Bob McDonnell of Virginia and even Jeb Bush would be viable candidates.
This is one reason why DeMint may not have backed Nikki Haley, a conservative superstar gubernatorial candidate, who faces at least three establishment conservatives -- A.G. Henry McMaster, Rep. Gresham Barrett, Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer -- for the primary. DeMint doesn't want to anger any of the men or women who would be governor when the primary takes place.
DeMint takes the future of the ... DeMint-like conservative movement seriously. His PAC has becoming a sort of a stamp of approval for conservative insurgents, like Marco Rubio, and Chuck DeVore, in fact, will attend several Rubio fundraisers next month. (DeMint, at CPAC, hinted that he might support third party challenges if Republicans weren't conservative enough.) His Senate Conservatives Fund has become a de-facto party organization fighting against the NRSC's preferred candidates, and under the new campaign finance rules, he might be able to turn it into a behemoths.
Here is another datum that was sort of passed over when it happened but is more relevant today, as it looks like Ron Paul and his Campaign for Liberty are preparing for a 2012 run: DeMint was the FIRST Republican Senator to sign onto Paul's bill calling for transparency in the Federal Reserve, and was thus the FIRST Republican to be publicly praised by the Campaign for Liberty, which is functioning as Paul's quasi-organizing committee. This linkage between the C4L -- a (501)(c)(4) and DeMint --- between Paul and DeMint -- should not be overlooked.
It is so easy to come up with objections to the DeMint scenario: he is WAY too conservative for the country, he's a member of the Republican Senate (which is hated), he can't raise much money beyond his base. I don't object to any of these objections. But what makes sense politically does not always drive politics: if DeMint wants to run, if he wants to save the Republican Party from conservatives (and there is plenty of evidence that the latter is true), there are worse environments for him than 2012.