GREENVILLE, S.C.—It was breakfast time at Tommy's Country Ham House, and 170 people tucked into steaming plates of grits and biscuits and sausage.
In Greenville, home to Bob Jones University, they leapt to their feet and gave a hero's welcome to Sen. Jim DeMint for leading Senate opposition to a massive immigration bill he's boiled down to one word: amnesty.
"If we can't secure our borders, then we really don't have a country," DeMint said to roars of approval.
The next day, Sen. Lindsey Graham, a fellow South Carolina Republican who helped craft the immigration bill, got a different response when he fielded questions during a call-in show on WORD 1330 AM, a Greenville talk-radio station that's Rush Limbaugh's main venue in this part of the state.
Eric from Greenville called to say that he personally knows "Hispanic sheet rockers" who worked for builders, formed their own companies—and are now undercutting their former bosses.
"Why can't our law enforcement contain these people and have them shipped out of the country?" Eric said. "No amnesty! Never!"
Joyce, also from Greenville, accused Graham of doing the bidding of "poultry workers which are gonna give us hepatitis C."
"They are not your constituents!" Joyce scolded. "I am! I voted for you, but I will never vote for you again!"
Calmly and methodically, Graham responded to each caller. He started with a "good question" or a "you're right" or "I understand why you're mad," then proceeded to eviscerate the emotional claims.
"South Carolina's economy would collapse without new workers," he told Joyce.
"As South Carolinians get better educated and get better jobs, somebody's got to do the chicken processing, somebody's got to pick the lettuce from the field, somebody's got to pour the tar," Graham said. "And it's a fact that we have a labor shortage."
The bill pushed by President Bush and a bipartisan group of senators would require border-security and worker-verification "triggers" to be met before undocumented workers could get legal status. To get new "Z visas," illegal immigrants would have to hold jobs, study English, pass criminal background checks and meet other standards.
Nowhere else in the nation is the immigration debate as visceral and intense as it is in South Carolina. No other state has two senators from the same party—who avow their close friendship—clashing so openly over what to do with an immigration system both say is broken, and with the 12 million undocumented immigrants it's produced.
Graham and DeMint are first-term senators. Only Graham is up for re-election next year, though no one from either party has stepped up to challenge him.
"By the time my election comes around, I think I will have a story of leadership on hard issues that serves this state and this country well," Graham said Friday in an interview.
"I think I'm in good standing with the people of South Carolina," he said. "My biggest fear has never been of losing; it's of copping out."
While Graham's most vocal constituents are furious with him over immigration, he's convinced that many others back him. His aides point to polls showing that a majority of Republicans nationwide support the bill the Senate will take up again this week. Graham also has collected letters of support from a number of business and agricultural groups in his state.
Rick Beltram, the head of the Greenville County Republican Party, noted other controversial stands of Graham's, such as his effort last year to limit coercive interrogation methods and to expand terrorism detainees' legal rights in a bill establishing military tribunals.
"I've never seen Lindsey Graham back off from anything," Beltram said. "He almost seems to enjoy confronting these things head on."
In November, a poll for WCSC-TV and WLTX-TV put Graham's approval rating at 56 percent and DeMint's at 51 percent. DeMint scored higher among Republicans, while Graham did better with Democrats, independents and blacks.
At Wade's Family Restaurant in Spartanburg, DeMint spoke to a smaller group of constituents over lunch.
"We've got another senator who doesn't agree with my position on this immigration bill," he said.
One man yelled out: "He calls us bigots!"
By now, most every conservative in South Carolina knows about Graham's "bigots" remark in March, when he received an award from the National Council of La Raza, the country's largest advocacy group for Hispanics' rights.
Graham, a former military lawyer, described the powerful impact that his first commanding officer, Dan Garza, had on him soon after he joined the Air Force.
"On behalf of the Dan Garzas of the world, we're going to solve this (immigration) problem," Graham said, his voice breaking. "We're not going to run people down. We're not going to scapegoat people. We're going to tell the bigots to shut up, and we're going to get this right."
He declined the opportunity to take back his words Friday.
"There are good people on both sides of this issue, but it is clear to me that bigotry exists," he said. "Bigotry has raised its ugly head in this debate. I can show you letters that are just absolutely racist."
DeMint portrays himself as protecting current immigrants. If the current bill passes, he said, it would only increase public resentment against those who are here illegally. He advocates allowing more temporary workers, and wants immigration revisions passed in pieces over time instead of in one fell swoop, starting with border reinforcements.
"South Carolina needs immigrant labor probably as much as any state in the nation," DeMint told the crowd at Wade's. "So if you're looking for a senator who's going to bash immigration, you're not going to find him here today."
(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.