Sen. Graham adapts to the times, confident of re-election

WASHINGTON — These days, Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham isn't deriding town hall hecklers as a bunch of "angry white guys" or branding as losers the conservative activists who criticize him at the state convention.

He's not writing New York Times columns with Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., on the dangers of climate change or working with the likes of the late Democratic Sen. Edward Kennedy and onetime GOP maverick in chief Sen. John McCain of Arizona on comprehensive immigration restructuring.

Midway through his second Senate term, starting his 18th year in Congress, Graham, of South Carolina, no longer is predicting the demise of the tea party, pitching the importance of the green economy or warning that the Chinese will leave us in the dust if we don't put a price on carbon.

At heart, Graham is a throwback lawmaker who's comfortable working across the aisle, loves the give and take of legislative deal-making and hungers to fix big problems for the country and his state. Back home, he's popular with the business leaders, military officers, veterans, wealthy retirees and other establishment Republicans in his GOP-dominated state.

For decades, Graham's winning style and mainstream party support would have made him a shoo-in for re-election in 2014.

Now he's struggling to respond to the political force of tea party insurgents, who made a backbench legislator, Nikki Haley, his state's governor in 2010 and last month gave Newt Gingrich's anti-Washington presidential campaign its only win so far, in South Carolina's Republican primary.

Is Graham just being the shrewd pol that his noisy detractors and many admirers agree he is? Is he merely adapting to the times, repositioning himself in the wake of the tea party rise and the ascension of South Carolina's junior senator, Jim DeMint, to the status of national conservative icon?

Or is the aw-shucks senator with the ready wit and self-deprecating style running scared, afraid of a serious primary challenge in a couple of years?

Graham sat in his Capitol Hill office last week, with American and South Carolina flags unfurled behind his desk. He pondered these questions for a moment or two, which for Lindsey Graham, from whom jokes and policy stands flow equally fast, is a rhetorical eternity.

When he responded, he started in typical fashion.

"I fear God," he quipped with a quick laugh.

Then he segued into serious thoughts that sounded like the outline of a stump speech.

"My profile is — I'm conservative, not an ideologue," Graham told McClatchy. "There's no momentum for immigration reform; it's kind of just stopped."

Graham didn't mention that perhaps one reason it's stopped is that he's gone from being an outspoken advocate for easing immigration law to floating the idea of a constitutional amendment to deny "birthright citizenship" to the children of illegal immigrants.

Graham also now opposes the Dream Act, which would give undocumented workers permanent residency if they arrived in the United States as minors and attend college or serve in the military.

He thinks he's better prepared to help the nation and his state.

"I want to be a guy that Democrats can find common ground with on the issues of the day," Graham said. "I want to do something on Social Security and Medicare. I want to find a way to get tea party Republicans and conservative Reagan Republicans like myself and some middle-of-the-road Democrats in a room to solve problems."

Asked again whether he fears a primary fight, Graham cut to the chase.

"No, I don't fear one; I expect one," he said. "In politics, you have to earn these jobs, and I just feel real prepared."

In his first Senate re-election campaign, in 2008, Graham swamped his GOP challenger, then soundly defeated the Democratic nominee.

Now, in Myrtle Beach, tea party leader Joe Dugan already is marshaling his forces of alarmed activists to make sure Graham faces a formidable foe in 2014.

"Graham is really an outcast," Dugan said. "He stands out like a sore thumb in a state as conservative as South Carolina. I wish he were up for re-election this year so we could vote him out."

Good luck with that, said Barry Wynn, a former state Republican Party chairman. Wynn, DeMint's campaign treasurer, has close ties with conservative activists across the state.

"I can tell you there are some noisy people who would like to run somebody against Lindsey Graham, but they really represent a fairly small minority," Wynn said. "My money would be on Lindsey to win any Republican primary in the state by a landslide."

In a Clemson University GOP presidential poll last November, Graham fared reasonably well among Republican voters: Sixty-three percent approved of his performance as senator versus 23 percent who disapproved.

"If somebody's going to tackle Lindsey, they'd better pack two lunches because he's going to eat the first one," said Katon Dawson of Columbia, also a former state GOP chief.

"He's always going to be well-financed," Dawson said. "And Lindsey is probably more informed on national issues than most senators in Washington. He's paid a tremendous amount of attention to problems back home, he's accessible, he works hard and he's got an amazing breadth of knowledge."

The GOP leaders also cite Graham's support among active-duty and retired military personnel, who like his hawkish views, his active-duty service in Iraq and Afghanistan as a military lawyer in the Air Force Reserve and his friendships with powerful folks in high places, including CIA director David Petraeus, the retired general who became a Graham fan while commanding U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.

As a judge advocate general in the Air Force Reserve, Graham has helped the fledgling Iraqi and Afghan governments set up judicial and law-enforcement systems during his active-duty stints there.

In Congress, Graham used his expertise to help craft laws on detaining, interrogating and trying alleged terrorists.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, with whom Graham worked in 2005, when she was a senator, to provide full military health benefits to reservists and National Guard members, has sent him on secret missions abroad since she assumed the nation's top diplomatic post three years ago.

Classified diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks and obtained by McClatchy show Graham warning Pakistani government leaders against appeasing radical Muslims and upbraiding Chinese officials about currency manipulation, only to be scolded by them for meddling in domestic affairs.

None of this praise or activity impresses Dugan.

State coordinator for the South Carolina Tea Party Coalition, he's putting out feelers to prospective Graham challengers. He declined to name them, but he dropped some tantalizing hints.

Asked whether he's courting freshman Rep. Tim Scott, another fast-rising conservative star from South Carolina and one of two black Republicans in Congress, Dugan responded: "You're getting warm."

Scott, a North Charleston Republican and former state representative, hastened to dampen such hopes with a denial that, if not ironclad, was fairly firm.

"I have no plans to run against the senator," he said.

Not so with South Carolina state Sen. Tom Davis, a real estate lawyer and onetime top aide to former Gov. Mark Sanford. "I haven't ruled anything out, and I haven't ruled anything in," Davis said in a recent interview.

"I do disagree with him in regard to his policies on cap and trade," Davis said. "I do disagree with him on immigration. I do disagree with him on confirming the two nominees to the Supreme Court" — Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan — "that President Obama put forward."

Davis continued: "I've been critical of him and some other Republicans who I don't think take the deficit and debt as seriously as they should."

Graham rejects such criticism, noting his longtime support for a balanced-budget amendment to the Constitution.

"When it comes to fiscal conservatism, I'll put my record up against anybody's," he said.

Yet the senator readily contrasted his focus on streamlining the federal government and making it more efficient with many tea party activists' desire to slash it significantly, eliminate whole agencies and leave only a few core functions.

"At the end of the day, you can talk about reshaping the government," Graham said. "Ronald Reagan did it incrementally. He tried to bring about change. But are we going to stop veterans' checks? Are we going to basically not pay the military? Somebody up here has to make sure that we find a way to do the basics of government."


United States Sen. Lindsey Graham

South Carolina tea party organizations

Project Vote Smart: Sen. Lindsey Graham Voting Record


Lindsey Graham in the thick of Washington's battles

WikiLeaks cables show Graham as senator-diplomat

Air Force Reservist Sen. Lindsey Graham served in Afghanistan