If “conservative opinion-leader” signals matter in wrapping up the 2012 GOP presidential nominating contest for Mitt Romney, and I think they do, then forget about yesterday’s Jeb Bush endorsment: Mitt just got The Big Fish. No, it’s not an outright endorsement, but this highly supportive statement just made by Sen. Jim DeMint (R-SC) is the functional equivalent:

“I can tell conservatives from my perspective is that, I’m not only comfortable with Romney, I’m excited about the possibility of him possibly being our nominee,” DeMint said. “Again, this is not a formal endorsement and I do not intend to do that right now but I just think we just need to look at where we are.”

Here’s the real kick in the teeth for Santorum and the man who won the primary in DeMint’s home state, Newt Gingrich:

“I don’t have any immediate plans to do an endorsement but I think we all need to look at this presidential primary and encourage the candidates to do a little self-reflection here – what’s good for our country,” he said. “The sooner we can make a decision, I think the sooner we can focus on the real problem which is Obama.”

DeMint said taking the race to the GOP convention in August would be a mistake.

“They can drag it out to the convention if they want, but I think if some of them look at where they are the best thing they can do is maybe look at throwing their support behind the one who might be our nominee and that’s beginning to look like Romney,” DeMint said.

DeMint is probably the closest thing around to an overall movement-conservative Field General at present, and his neutrality in the nomination contest has been highly strategic and has given him great leverage.

You may recall that Romney’s single biggest and most important concession to Tea Party sentiment, his sign-on to the Cut, Cap & Balance Pledge, was done at DeMint’s specific command. And the most richly symbolic moment of Mitt’s courtship of the Right occurred a bit later, when Romney canceled previous plans and scurried down to SC on Labor Day of 2011 to submit himself to an inquisition by DeMint, IA Rep. Steve King, and social conservative poohbah Robert George at the Palmetto Freedom Forum.

Some observers will misunderstand today’s gesture by noting blandly that, after all, DeMint endorsed Mitt in 2008. Well, so did National Review, Paul Weyrich, Glenn Beck, and in all but the “e” word, Rush Limbaugh. It was a different year, well before the entire GOP lurched hard right. Mitt had to fight hard for DeMint’s imprimatur this time, and anyone harboring illusions that Romney is a secret moderate needs to reflect on that fact.

It may take right-wing voters a while to accept Romney in the primaries. But make no mistake, Jim DeMint’s just given the big signal that if Mitt’s okay by him, he should be okay by anyone on the Right this side of complete Crazy Town.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore is a political columnist for New York and managing editor at the Democratic Strategist website. He was a contributing writer at the Washington Monthly from January 2012 until November 2015, and was the principal contributor to the Political Animal blog.