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Lindsey goes left, DeMint goes right

Two S.C. senators chart different paths

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Political headlines on health care and the Supreme Court have offered competing visions for the future of the Republican Party, and "(R-S.C.)" has played a prominent role in both debates.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, one of the gang of 14 that ended partisan deadlocks on previous Supreme Court nominees, won praise for his sometimes thoughtful (though occasionally condescending) questioning of President Barack Obama's pick for the court, Sonia Sotomayor. Last week, he bucked his party's leadership and supported her nomination. When challenged by conservatives in his own party, he told Politico he had no time for "blind ideology."

Sen. Jim DeMint, who panned Sotomayor weeks ago, has already moved on to another controversial debate: health care. In speaking with supporters, DeMint framed the issue as an opportunity to damage Obama's larger agenda, saying a defeat would "break him" and be the president's "Waterloo."

"We have two very different senators," observes David Mann, a political science professor at the College of Charleston.

Just beginning his second six-year term, Graham is moving to the middle, giving reasoned arguments for compromise in an attempt to prove the GOP is still relevant in the minority. DeMint, facing his first reelection next year since winning the seat in '04, is focusing all of his attention on the party's conservative base, ratcheting up rhetoric as he calls for a smaller, more principled GOP.

It's the kind of relationship that harkens back to the days when Republican Sen. Strom Thurmond and Democratic Sen. Fritz Hollings were in Washington, says University of South Carolina political science professor Blease Graham.

"There's been a traditional division of labor between the South Carolina members in the U.S. Senate," he says.

DeMint plays the role of the conservative anchor, he says, while Lindsey Graham is the kind of Republican that reassures independents.

Go Your Own Way

Lindsey Graham first won a Congressional seat representing an Upstate district in 1995 and then replaced Thurmond in 2002. Graham received national scorn from fellow conservatives for his moderate immigration priorities, and he got more attention as presidential runner-up John McCain's closest adviser in the '08 race.

Last month, Graham went on Meet the Press to defend Gov. Mark Sanford shortly after he admitted to an affair. Graham was sitting beside former Mass. Gov. Mitt Romney, the front-runner for the party's 2012 presidential race. But it was Graham who stole the headlines.

Washington Post columnist Chris Cillizza called the senator's talk show appearance an "inspired performance" and he wondered aloud whether Graham was a new Republican leader.

"Graham was willing to point out where his own party had strayed while also making a reasonable argument for GOP ideas," Cillizza wrote.

When it was time for the Republicans in the Judiciary Committee to grill Sotomayor, Graham was often the voice of reason among politically pandering pontification.

"Whenever the South Carolinian spoke during Sotomayor's four days of confirmation hearings, senators stopped fiddling with notes or talking to staff members and instead closely watched and listened," the Post later reported.

Jim DeMint, on the other hand, has been on a different track since replacing Hollings in 2004. While the two Upstate senators often seem cordial in public, DeMint often finds himself to the right of Graham, taking a much harder line on right-wing red meat issues like immigration and fiscally conservative principles. DeMint has famously opposed any earmarks for South Carolina projects, calling the entire system unfair.

DeMint almost seems giddy over the few chances he's had to muster bile from the left, and it was no different last week after his comments to fellow conservatives on health care. "If you're able to stop Obama on this, it will be his Waterloo," DeMint said. "It will break him."

The president referred to the senator's comments in a prime time news conference, saying that the debate should be about health care, not Obama. DeMint then took to political talk shows and the Senate floor with indignation.

The Future Is Now

Sanford's professional breakdown in the wake of his super-secret trip to Argentina has left an opening for a Southern Republican in the presidential horse race. But neither senator seems ready or anxious for the opportunity. Graham, one of McCain's closest advisers, kept himself off the running-mate shortlist last year. And DeMint, a strong advocate for Romney's '08 race, has said he wants a more attractive candidate than himself.

Of the two, Graham seems more likely on a trajectory for Senate leadership.

"Graham is already serving as an informal spokesman with the backing of most Republicans," Blease Graham says.

But party leadership does have its consequences. Mann warns that Lindsey Graham shouldn't let his focus move toward national or international issues at the detriment of South Carolina priorities.

Meanwhile, DeMint has confounded Senate leadership in the past with his far-right, different-drummer approach. That animosity has dulled in the past few months as DeMint prepares for his reelection campaign. Blease Graham says that DeMint is someone who concentrates on the message, and the allusions to Waterloo have resonance, particularly among conservatives.

"He's cultivating the base," Blease Graham says.

DeMint is also cultivating Democratic opposition. The national party released an ad in South Carolina and in Washington calling DeMint out for his comments, while the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee sat down last week with at least one prospective challenger, state Sen. Brad Hutto.

But the field is nowhere near as wide as it would be in a state with a few less good ol' boys. And, without a scandal, a race against an incumbent senator is difficult, says Blease Graham.

"An independent will almost by default lean toward DeMint," he says.

But Mann still sees potential for moderate Republicans to field primary opposition, particularly those looking for two Lindsey Grahams or those who may have reached their limit on DeMint's tired rhetoric after the Waterloo rant.

"To the reasonable person, it doesn't look good," he says.

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