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As evidenced by recent polling data, there is no more influential voice in South Carolina’s “First in the South” Republican presidential primary that U.S. Sen. Jim DeMint.

Thirty-one percent of SCGOP primary voters say they would be “more likely” to support a candidate backed by Demint – compared to just 14 percent who said they would be “more likely” to support a candidate based on S.C. Gov. Nikki Haley’s endorsement.

(To read our story on those numbers, click here).

Unlike Haley, though, DeMint has chosen to stay on the sidelines in 2012 – which we view as a tragic waste of political capital. Of course every time DeMint opens his mouth to opine on the 2012 race it’s an E.F. Hutton moment … including his recent comments regarding U.S. Rep. Ron Paul being the possible conservative alternative to Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.

“One of the things that’s hurt the so-called conservative alternative is saying negative things about Ron Paul,” DeMint said Wednesday on a national radio show. “I’d like to see a Republican party that embraces a lot of the libertarian ideas.”

Later, DeMint said that the GOP “needs” libertarian voters – not just to rise above perpetual minority status but also to infuse the party with legitimate pro-taxpayer principles.

“You don’t have to agree with everything (Paul)’s saying but if the other candidates miss some of the wisdom about what he’s saying about monetary policy … that will be to our detriment,” DeMint said.

Having already enthusiastically endorsed Paul’s candidacy, we wholeheartedly concur with DeMint’s assessment.

If Republicans decide to nominate an ideologically bankrupt, flip-flopping opportunist like Romney – they do so at their own peril. Meanwhile, they ignore Paul at the peril of U.S. taxpayers.