WASHINGTON — Republican activists greeted U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham with polite applause at the state GOP convention last weekend, while delivering thunderous ovation and raucous cheers for U.S. Sen. Jim DeMint and Gov. Mark Sanford.
For Graham, that was progress.
When the Seneca Republican appeared at the convention a year earlier, many party stalwarts booed him -- a stunning rebuke for Graham's leading role in pushing immigration reforms that would later fail in the Senate.
"I didn't have an applause meter, but I thought I was well received," Graham said of his recent reception at the Columbia convention. "I know Mark and Jim are popular. I'm having an election Tuesday -- we'll see how popular I am."
In the June 10 Republican primary, Graham, 52, faces Buddy Witherspoon, a retired Lexington County orthodontist and longtime GOP activist seeking his first elected office.
Witherspoon, who served on the Republican National Committee for more than a decade, says Graham "is too liberal for South Carolina" and "no longer represents the views of mainstream South Carolinians."
In a TV ad launched Thursday, Witherspoon stands before images of hospital emergency rooms and ambulances with red lights swirling.
"Each year, thousands of illegal immigrants use our local hospitals," he says. "And who pays the bills? The good, hard-working people of this state. Lindsey Graham supports illegal immigrants using your money to pay for their hospitalization. I will put an end to his reckless policy."
As he seeks a second Senate term, Graham has largely ignored Witherspoon -- except to mock his claim that U.S., Canadian and Mexican leaders might be secretly hatching the North American Union, with its own currency called the Amero.
"There's a lot of things to worry about in the world -- Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, North Korea," Graham told WYFF-TV in Greenville, a tone of gleeful mischief in his voice. "But the United States, Canada and Mexico merging and becoming one country -- nothing to worry about."
In his 14th year in Congress -- eight in the House, six in the Senate -- Graham sometimes seems to live in parallel universes.
In Washington, reporters mob him in the marble corridors on Capitol Hill, and he is a regular on the Sunday morning TV talk shows.
"I'd put my first term in the Senate up against anybody in the country as far as being effective and making a mark," Graham said.
When he visits General Assembly Republicans, as he did two months ago, and pledges to do whatever it takes to help them get re-elected, his former statehouse peers greet him like a rock star.
"It's just in Lindsey's nature to roll up his sleeves, try to solve problems and be a leader," said state Sen. Thomas Alexander, a Walhalla Republican who was Graham's desk-mate during their two years together in the state House. "There's just a sense of confidence that people have in him."
Yet in South Carolina -- especially in the conservative Upstate that he calls home -- some of his more conservative constituents freely accost him on the street and yell at him on radio talk shows.
"He takes great pride in saying he stands by his convictions," said E.C. Fulcher, a retired Lockheed Martin engineer who lives in Chapin. "Well, who's to say his convictions are right? I don't like some of his convictions, especially on immigration."
Larry Jacobs, director of the Center for the Study of Politics and Governance at the University of Minnesota, said Graham's complicated political life highlights a problem the Republican Party faces nationwide:
Many of its most committed activists are more conservative and more overtly ideological than the GOP officeholders who represent them.
"The kind of backlash that Lindsey Graham is facing in South Carolina is a good example of the tension we're seeing at the national level and in a number of states," Jacobs said.
Witherspoon, 69, would appear to offer little more than token opposition to Graham.
Graham's got $4.5 million in his campaign coffers and a slew of endorsements from prominent political and business leaders across the state.
Witherspoon has $350,000 on hand and support from a ragtag army of GOP activists.
Yet, Graham is running a hard-right campaign heralding his support for gun rights and conservative judges, while touting his opposition to abortion and wasteful government spending.
Graham last month set up the "South Carolina Values Coalition" of "pro-family and pro-life leaders (who) praise the senator's conservative record."
On Friday, he announced his "National Security Coalition" of SC military leaders.
While Graham said in an interview that one of his top first-term achievements was writing legislation that increased health benefits for National Guard and Reserve members, he didn't add what he has often noted in the past -- that Sen. Hillary Clinton helped him craft the bill.
Graham vehemently denied that he is pandering to his party's right wing or indulging in election-year distortion of his record.
"What I am doing is letting people know the truth," Graham said. "I get defined by the one in 10 times I do something different. I get defined by doing something different on detainees or by getting involved in bipartisan efforts to solve the immigration problem. If you listen to the radio, you get a distorted view of who I am."
Graham said he is merely trying to redress the balance.
"Don't be tricked," he said in a direct appeal to voters. "I am a solid economic and social conservative. I do believe we're wasting your money up here. I do believe in the (anti-abortion) Unborn Victims of Violence Act. I am very strong on the war. I have argued with Republicans on occasion, but I am an independent-minded reformer and a mainstream conservative."
With his close ally Sen. John McCain now the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, Graham gets asked often these days whether he would like to nab a senior McCain administration post -- attorney general, perhaps, or even a Supreme Court seat.
Graham stops just short of categorically rejecting any such appointment.
"I believe I'm well positioned to serve my state and nation well in the Senate," he said. "I've been a very active member of that body. I understand how it works. Quite frankly, I think I have a bright future in the Senate, and that's where I want to stay."
Graham is not certain, though, that he wants to stay in the Senate as long as two of his famous predecessors stayed -- 42 years for Republican Strom Thurmond, 38 years for Democrat Fritz Hollings.
"I do understand the benefit of experience, but quite frankly, I don't look at myself as being up here when I'm 85," he said.
(Gina Smith of The State in Columbia, S.C., contributed to this report.)