WASHINGTON -- Sen. Jim DeMint kicked off a three-day gathering of conservative activists Thursday, telling thousands of cheering supporters that the divided Republican presidential contest is good for the party and will produce a stronger nominee to take on President Barack Obama.
In a TV interview before his opening speech to the Conservative Political Action Committee's annual convention in Washington, DeMint said the GOP race could go all the way to the Republican National Convention in Tampa Bay, Fla., in August.
That prospect could lead to delegates choosing the GOP nominee at a brokered convention for the first time since 1948.
"The way it's set up this year with the divided delegates -- it could very well go to the convention," DeMint told CNN.
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At the CPAC gathering, DeMint said the fierce competition is good for former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania and Rep. Ron Paul of Texas.
"It's kind of good to see them doing well at different points because it scares them all," DeMint told an adoring crowd. "It makes them realize that 'this guy has something that I don't have.' "
DeMint, who was national co-chairman of Romney's 2008 failed presidential bid but hasn't endorsed anyone this year, backed off his prediction last month that Romney will be the GOP nominee.
"I still think it's up for grabs," he told Fox News. "And I think it's a good thing. All the candidates are becoming better. As you watched them, they have gotten a lot better, more sure of their positions."
DeMint urged the White House contestants and their supporters to accept no compromises with President Barack Obama and congressional Democrats.
"We don't have shared goals with the Democrats," DeMint told the conservative activists. "Every time we compromise with Democrats, we spend more, we borrow more, we grow government."
Al Cardenas, head of the American Conservative Union, which runs CPAC, welcomed DeMint back to the convention after a one-year boycott.
"Jim DeMint is one of America's most courageous conservative leaders," Cardenas said.
DeMint and several other prominent conservatives skipped the CPAC summit last year because it included GOProud, a group of gay conservatives. The group was not invited this year.
DeMint acknowledged that all the remaining presidential candidates have weaknesses.
"If we could take the best of all four and roll them together, we would have a strong nominee," he told Fox News. "I think that is what we're going to have. I think the one who wins the nomination is going to extract the best ideas from all four and take it to the people, combine it with a lot of fight and tenacity. That will be our nominee."
DeMint refused to give Obama any credit for the decreased unemployment rate or other signs that the economy is improving.
"There is nothing this president has done that makes this economy better," DeMint said to loud applause at the CPAC convention. "This president is grasping at straws, trying to take credit for what the American people are doing."
DeMint said the unemployment rate has dropped because many people have stopped looking for work.
"We've got the smallest workforce we've had in 30 years," he told CNN. "That makes unemployment look a little better, but to still say that 8.3 (percent) is an improvement -- that just means we've lowered our expectations. I mean, we obviously can't grow at less than 2 percent a year and say that's a good economy."