WASHINGTON — Soft-spoken, slight of physical stature and not even the senior senator in his own state, Jim DeMint wouldn't seem like the most likely choice to fill the role of one-man Obama wrecking crew.
Yet the first-term South Carolina Republican has quickly emerged as a leading voice of opposition to President Barack Obama's bid to overhaul the American health-care system with new or expanded federal government programs.
DeMint, rated by advocacy groups across the political spectrum as one of the most conservative senators, has used his background as a former marketing firm owner to boil down the complex health-care debate into a few pithy, attention-grabbing words.
In just the last month, DeMint has vowed to make health care Obama's "Waterloo" and urged conservative activists to help "break him"; compared the United States under Obama to the 1930s Nazi Germany under Hitler; and cast the heated health-care fight as "a real showdown between socialism and freedom."
Obama singled out DeMint for criticism at a news conference last month, and the Democratic National Committee launched a TV ad targeting him.
"This is a battle I've been waiting for and hoping for, for years," DeMint told McClatchy. "We've got to stop the socialization of medicine. … We've stirred up a fight."
DeMint is also challenging Obama on a lower-profile issue: He's placed a hold on two nominees to senior State Department posts to protest Obama's pushing for ousted Honduran President Manuel Zelaya's return to power, which the administration backed away from last week.
The health-care dispute is dominating the news, however, and DeMint is in the middle of it.
In his quiet way, DeMint rejects Democratic claims that he supports the health-care status quo and backs the insurance companies. He cites his bill to allow Americans to buy medical coverage across state lines and to permit businesses to pool their policies.
DeMint rebukes his opponents' depiction of him as a rabid partisan, noting that he criticized Republican President George W. Bush for overspending; opposed his No Child Left Behind education reforms; voted against his late-term bailout of banks; and attacked appropriations earmarks of lawmakers from both parties.
The senator also denies any connection between his strident attacks on "Obamacare" and conservative demonstrators' recent angry disruptions of Democratic lawmakers' public meetings in their home districts.
"I encourage people to be civil, to be courteous and to be respectful to their lawmaker, but I have encouraged people to go to the town halls and express their views. I've never seen people so alarmed about the direction of their country."
DeMint's growing legion of conservative admirers see him as a throwback to conservative icon Jesse Helms of North Carolina who tells it like it is and lets the political chips fall where they may.
"You're a great American," Katie Dempsey, a 20-something admirer from Houston, told DeMint last month as he signed her copy of his new book "Saving Freedom" at the National Press Club in Washington. "My mom loves you. If she wasn't married, you'd have to watch out."