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S.C.'s Unconventional Senator

This story was written by's Kevin Hechtkopf

When Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld before the Senate Armed Services Committee recently, many Democrats unsurprisingly questioned his assessment of progress in the Iraq war.

Political eyebrows were raised, however, by the challenge that came from Lindsey Graham, a conservative first-term Republican senator from South Carolina.

Graham said: "I'm here to tell you, sir, in the most patriotic state I can imagine, people are beginning to question. And I don't think it's a blip on the radar screen. I think we have a chronic problem on our hands."

Graham's comments were on the network evening news broadcasts and appeared in newspapers the next day, even though he is still a strong supporter of President Bush's Iraq policy. Graham said he believed that declining public support is a "growing problem" that must be addressed to keep the U.S. from losing the war.

This was not the first time Graham made headlines for bucking the Republican Party line. He has also been in the news for speaking out during the Abu Ghraib scandal, calling for higher payroll taxes in order to pay for personal accounts within Social Security and for joining with the bipartisan "Gang of 14" senators who went around their own party leadership to stop a Senate showdown use of the filibuster

Graham has consistently stood out in an increasingly partisan Senate as someone who speaks his mind and is willing to cross party lines to do so. "I have a habit of putting ideas on the table," Graham told

Other senators who wear the maverick label, including Sen. John McCain of Arizona, represent states with enough voters from the opposing party to make non-conformity smart politics.

Graham, however, hails from one of the reddest of the red states.

President Bush carried South Carolina with 58 percent of the vote last year, and almost all statewide offices are held by Republicans. "Other than Texas, there isn't a bigger Bush state," said Katon Dawson, the state Republican party chairman.

Graham's performance in the Senate has surprised many Democrats, including South Carolina Democratic Party Chairman Joe Erwin. "Clearly he's different from other Republicans," he said.

Erwin said it was most amazing to see Graham, who was a House manager during former President Bill Clinton's impeachment trial, join with Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., to launch a group of bipartisan senators to focus on manufacturing issues.

Graham and Clinton have also worked together to call for increased health benefits for National Guard members.

However, many who know Graham or have followed his rise through Congress are not surprised at all.

"He always had an independent streak," said David Woodard, a professor of political science at Clemson University, who was Graham's campaign manager during his first and second House campaigns in the 1990s.

"He is not, nor has ever been, a cookie-cutter, garden-variety conservative," added Norman Ornstein, a resident scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute.

Conversely, some of his Democratic supporters and admirers might be surprised to learn that his voting record is very much in line with that of his conservative colleagues.

The American Conservative Union gave Graham a 92 rating last year, which is equal to the ratings given to Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist and Sen. George Allen, who are both considered solid conservatives.

Graham's lifetime score of 91 is equal to Allen and the late Strom Thurmond, whom Graham succeeded in the Senate. His lifetime rating is even a little higher than Frist's. Many moderates and mavericks, such as McCain, have ratings much below Graham's.

"I can conduct myself in a way that never causes friction, or I can find creative solutions to solve problems," Graham told He said his reputation stems from the fact that whenever a Republican says anything, the critical part is what will make the news.

"Some say your team has to say the same thing," he explained. "I don't think that helps the country."

Some political observers say Graham's independent streak can be traced to his background.

Phil Noble, executive director of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council in South Carolina, said Graham's independence is very typical of South Carolina politics.

"Politically, he has positioned himself great for South Carolina," Noble said. "From my perspective, he is quintessential South Carolina -- independent, ornery, audacious and bold."

Graham was born and raised in South Carolina and attended University of South Carolina for both college and law school. While in college, both of his parents died and he later became responsible for his younger sister.

After law school, he spent six and a half years on active duty as an Air Force lawyer. After leaving the Air Force in 1989, he served in the South Carolina Air National Guard and became a defense attorney. He was first elected to the House in 1994, where he served until his election to the Senate in 2002.

While in the House, Graham received attention for being involved in a coup attempt against speaker Newt Gingrich in 1997 and also for being the sole Republican in the House Judiciary Committee to vote against one of the articles of impeachment against Clinton.

"There is a bit of a rebel in him and it shows over and over," said Larry J. Sabato, director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics.

Graham is also the only U.S. senator currently serving in the Guard or Reserves. He has been in the U.S. Air Force Reserves since 1995 and is now a colonel assigned as a reserve judge to the Air Force Court of Criminal Appeals. Graham is 49 years old and is single.

"I think the key to Lindsey Graham is his character and personal history," said Woodard, the Clemson professor.

Graham himself said his experience as both a prosecutor and defense attorney prepared him for his current role. He said was trained to help the client over his own personal interest and that mentality continues in his work in the Senate.

"We can't let special-interest politics or fear of criticism stop us from dealing with issues like Social Security and the war," Graham said.

Woodard added that his strengths as a politician include defying a conservative stereotype by being very personable and approachable. He also said many in the state know Graham just as "Lindsey."

His strengths in reaching out to Democrats and independents, however, might harm his relationship with conservatives, especially in his home state.

Many have been critical of Graham especially because of his involvement in the filibuster deal. The state Republican Party reported receiving hundreds of critical phone calls and letters.

"He earned a lot capital with conservatives during the Clinton impeachment fight, but his protection of the filibuster has severely depleted that capital," said Tom Fitton, president of the legal watchdog group Judicial Watch.

On the other hand, many analysts note that South Carolinians admire an independent streak, evidenced by decades-long support for Thurmond and former Democratic senator Fritz Hollings despite their sometimes controversial statements.

"Hollings had the base of the party in upheaval, but come election time they had amnesia," said Dawson, the state Republican party chairman.

Graham also overcame previous controversy with the GOP base when he bucked the party establishment to endorse McCain in the 2000 Republican presidential primary.

Dawson said that Republican voters do not hold Graham's support for McCain against him any more, even though he notes that McCain's "'Straight Talk Express' from 2000 has four flat tires and a blown engine."

Most analysts say that it is still way too soon to know how Graham will fare if he runs for re-election in 2008.

Blease Graham (no relation), a professor of political science at the University of South Carolina, said that the senator has revealed "political astuteness" by attracting some independent and African American voters, which are needed in a winning coalition in South Carolina.

But he also thinks there is some risk that a conservative Republican might take a run at him in a primary. One potential challenger, Thomas Ravenel, is reported to be considering challenging Graham in a primary in 2008.

The American Enterprise Institute's Ornstein said although some comments have caused headaches, he doesn't think it was lasting and he doubts he will face a serious primary challenger. "I would be stunned, frankly, if he has caused serious erosion of support among his constituents," he said.

While he is unwilling to say whether he will vote for Graham in his next election, one prominent Democrat in South Carolina made a point to support him in another way - with his checkbook.

"Lindsey [Graham] was a refreshing surprise," said Richard Harpootlian, the former chairman of the South Carolina Democratic Party, who has donated $2,000 to Graham's campaign in the last three months.

"We need people who do what they think is right and what is best for the country, and for South Carolina," he said.
By Kevin Hechtkopf