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S.C.'s Unconventional Senator

CAROUSEL Spanish actor Javier Bardem, center, accompanied by Spanish lawmakers as well as other political, civil rights and trade union leaders march in support of Western Sahara, in Madrid, Saturday, Nov. 13, 2010. Thousand of protesters are demonstrating in Madrid against Morocco's recent crackdown that has left at least 10 people dead in the former Spanish colony of Western Sahara in northwestern Africa. (AP Photo/Paul White)
AP Photo/Paul White
This story was written by CBSNews.com'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 CBSNews.com.

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.