COLUMBIA -- In the 2012 Republican nominating contest, Sen. Jim DeMint is like the pretty girl all the boys want to take to the prom. Nearly every GOP presidential candidate has come a-courting the South Carolina Republican ahead of his state's Jan. 21 primary.

A dean of the influential and well-funded tea party movement, DeMint has made it clear that he is sitting this one out.

The senator suggests that he is not feeling that special attraction to any of the candidates, whether it be front-runner Mitt Romney or one of his rivals, or feeling peer pressure to pair up for the big dance.

Instead, he has his eye on another class of candidate entirely -- those aiming to win enough Senate seats to flip the chamber from Democratic to Republican control.

"My priority is the Senate," DeMint said this week, adding that it doesn't matter who is elected president if Republicans don't get a Senate majority. He is again turning to his political action committee, Senate Conservatives Fund, to help candidates he wants to see elected to the Senate.

"I have the ability to raise $10 (million) or $15 million to elect some senators, and that's how I think I can help the next president," he said. "As soon as I get involved with one (presidential) candidate, I've got 80 percent of my supporters mad at me."

Still, for all of DeMint's efforts not to get dragged into the GOP presidential race, he waded into it with a prediction.

"I think Romney's going to win here," DeMint, 60, told South Carolina conservative radio host Mark Levin.

There are other signs that DeMint is warm to Romney. The senator's political adviser, Warren Tompkins, and former top aide, Luke Byars, are working on the candidate's behalf. And some close to DeMint, who endorsed Romney in 2008, say he is quietly telling people that he is backing Romney and they should too.

In public, he will only go so far. "I don't have anything against Mitt Romney or any of the candidates," he said. "I think we've got a good slate. I don't see any of them as unacceptable."

Whether coy or genuine, DeMint's stance hasn't discouraged his pursuers.

Romney faces challenges from Ron Paul, Jon Huntsman, Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum and Rick Perry. Nearly every one of them has wooed DeMint.