The idea that U.S. Sen. Jim DeMint could lead an event such as the Palmetto Freedom Forum seemed very unlikely during the last election cycle.
DeMint (R-S.C.) had alienated the mainstream of the Republican Party by endorsing and helping raise money for insurgent candidates like Marco Rubio, Rand Paul and Pat Toomey.
But when they defeated more established — if somewhat less conservative — incumbents, DeMint suddenly found himself being called a “kingmaker” and surpassing U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham as the most influential politician in South Carolina.
Now, that he has attained a level of power, DeMint has shown a willingness to use it, with the Freedom Forum on Labor Day being a case in point.
The Forum has been organized by the American Principles Project (APP) and is designed as a question-and-answer session between conservatives and GOP presidential candidates. The event will be moderated by longtime news anchor David Stanton and candidates will be asked questions by a panel that includes DeMint, Iowa Congressman Steve King and Robert George, the founder of the APP.
"This is a candidate forum for them — it's supposed to be candidate-friendly," DeMint said Tuesday. "They have their own time on the stage to talk about what they stand for, what they believe and how that relates to constitutional principles."
The senator says there won't be "gotcha" moments. "This is about hearing from the candidates," DeMint said. “People in South Carolina will hopefully find out more about what the candidates stand for.”
Six candidates will attend: , former Mass. Gov. Mitt Romney, , Texas Rep. Ron Paul, businessman Herman Cain and and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich.
Candidates needed to be polling at no less than five percent in the RealClearPolitics.com poll as of Aug. 22 to secure an invitation. Rudy Giuliani and Sarah Palin were also extended invitations but declined.
Though the stage will be crowded and may be occupied for a time by the country’s next president, DeMint will be the star.
Danielle Vinson, political science chair at Furman University, could not recall a time when a South Carolina politician had such influence.
“He’s connected to voters who identify with the Tea Party and to conservatives more broadly. Since the last presidential race his influence has extended beyond South Carolina, which is why candidates are so interested in his nod of approval,” she said.
Statistically, it’s hard to tell exactly how that approval will play out at the polls. “We’re still trying to figure out what percentage of the state is actually Tea Party,” Vinson said.
Complicating matters is the nature of the Tea Party itself. “They are not always interested in following directions from on high,” Vinson said. “They like to make up their own minds.”
From the candidates' standpoint the event is critical.
According to Kyle Kondik at the University of Virginia Center for Politics, the Freedom Forum, coupled with a Wednesday debate in California, will give voters a good sense of the field — and it will give poll-watchers a good sense of how strong frontrunner Perry, , is.
“For a while voters were saying they weren’t happy with the field and they were looking for someone else. That someone else might be Rick Perry,” Kondik said. “After next week we’ll know if that’s true.”
Lexington Rep. Todd Atwater, who will attend the forum, believes Perry is the party's best hope for 2012.
"I believe he will be able to lead us going forward," Atwater said.
Kondik also believes it will be interesting to watch how Romney, a last-minute attendee, approaches the event. Romney may also pick up a .
Previously the frontrunner, Romney made every effort to stay above the fray when criticized by the likes of Tim Pawlenty, whose failure to effectively attack either Romney or Bachmann kept him back in the polls and led to his early departure from the race.
“Romney is now in the position of Pawlenty,” Kondik said.
Kondik observed that it might not serve Romney well to attack Perry in either South Carolina or Iowa, two states that have a preponderance of evangelical Christian voters, many of whom figure to support Perry.
How the candidates respond to each other will be closely watched, but many voters are sure to watch how candidates respond to DeMint as well.
Vinson believes it is still possible for a candidate to win the South Carolina primary without getting the blessings of DeMint due to the impact Democrats and Independents could have in the open primary.
Determining the motivations of these voters — whether they’re voting for one candidate or for the candidate that they think would be a better opponent for Barack Obama — is difficult. But if the race is close Vinson believes the independents and Democrats will be critical.
Kondik thinks it would behoove candidates to seek out DeMint.
“It’s clear that DeMint’s views are pretty well aligned with much of South Carolina, so you’re going to want DeMint’s support,” he said.
But DeMint says he's waiting until January before offering his endorsement. "I want this to play out," he said. "I found last time when I endorsed early, they stopped listening."
The Freedom Forum begins at 3 p.m. in the Columbia Metropolitan Convention Center at 1101 Lincoln St. , providing as-it-happens reporting and analysis.
S.C. ETV and CNN will broadcast the event live on television and TownHall.com will provide live streaming.