WASHINGTON — Sen. Lindsey Graham admits the bulk of the constituents he hears from these days are not as supportive of the war in Iraq as they used to be.
But the freshman Republican from South Carolina is far from ready to talk about exit strategies.
So convinced is he that the so-called surge of additional soldiers in Iraq is working that he's become one of the chief defenders of the strategy.
"I'm trying to give it a chance to work," says Graham.
As the Senate heatedly debated defense policy last week, Graham popped up just about everywhere.
He was on the Senate floor arguing against amendments calling for withdrawal. He was at a news conference declaring that the only way the troops would lose is if lawmakers "pull the rug out from under them here and take over the commanders' ability to run this war." And he was at the White House talking to President Bush.
Graham wasn't picked for this job. He picked it.
A military reservist and a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, he's been to Iraq seven times and plans to go back in August.
But he thinks his primary credential in the latest war debate is his early criticism that the war wasn't working, and his call for more troops long before an extra 30,000 were sent in.
"If you withdraw now, you are going to allow al-Qaida up off the floor," he said. "And if you continue with what we're doing, we can destroy al-Qaida in Iraq."
Usually personable and even playful, the senator has been pushed to exasperation lately.
Last Sunday, he sparred with fellow Sen. James Webb, D-Va., a Vietnam combat veteran, about whether the troops want to stay in Iraq.
"They want to win. Let them win," Graham said on NBC's "Meet the Press."
"Don't put political words in their mouth," said Webb, who pointed to evidence that the troops' view of the war is just as negative as the nation's. "You've been doing it ever since I've been in Congress."
Graham noted his multiple visits to Iraq to talk directly to the military, but Webb challenged whether lawmakers are shown a real side of war.
"You go see the dog and pony shows," Webb said dismissively.
His position on the war - along with his support of President Bush's controversial immigration reform proposal - have raised questions among some of his conservative constituents and escalated talk of a challenge in the 2008 Republican primary. Several names have been circulated, including that of Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer.
Experts say his unwillingness to follow public opinion, especially on immigration, could make him vulnerable.
"It has struck me as rather unusual that Lindsey Graham has not been pandering to the right flank of the electorate," said Donald Aiesi, a political science professor at Furman University.
The chairman of the York County Republican Party, Glenn McCall of Rock Hill, said he was relieved to see Graham back on solid conservative footing with support of the military after he disappointed constituents by trying to negotiate an immigration bill they viewed as amnesty for illegal immigrants.
"It definitely helped the vast majority of us to know that he didn't totally go off the wagon," McCall said.
Graham's position on the surge doesn't differ markedly from that of other Carolinas senators, but he's made it a signature issue.
The son of a World War II veteran, he says he's pleased that others are looking to him for leadership on the issue.
"He's just plain smart and he's passionate," said Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, who almost lost his job in the last election for supporting the war and had to switch from a Democrat to an independent to win. "He's not going to play politics with the issue and he's not going to take the easy way out."
Graham says he's tired of lawmakers punting hard decisions, and he's willing to deal with the consequences.
"I'm not trying to achieve universal agreement or overwhelming popularity," he said. "I hope I'm earning some respect."