BIRMINGHAM, Mich. — As Sen. Lindsey Graham regaled Republican activists at the Big Rock Chop House in a Detroit suburb, his debate Saturday night with Democratic challenger Bob Conley seemed like the last thing on his mind.
"Tip the bartender!" Graham hollered Wednesday night to 50 GOP faithful gathered around him in the restaurant's cozy upstairs lounge. "My dad owned a bar!"
Sens. John McCain, Barack Obama and their vice presidential picks holed up for days to prepare for their election debates.
Completing his first Senate term, the Seneca Republican took a different approach this week leading up to his televised faceoff with Conley.
Graham campaigned around the country with his pal McCain, then broke off on his own for trips to Michigan and Indiana to raise money for Republicans in those beleaguered Rust Belt states.
Despite a Rasmussen Reports poll last month showing Conley within 9 percentage points of Graham in South Carolina -- trailing the incumbent 50-41 percent -- the senior senator is confident of re-election.
"I've been preparing for this debate (with Conley) for five years," Graham said. "I don't need to prepare a whole lot of time to tell people what I've done and what I'd like to do."
Graham's stances on controversial issues such as immigration and terrorism trials, close friendship with McCain and frequent TV interviews have made him a well-known political figure far beyond his home state.
"He's got some liberal slants," said Earle Van Dyke, a local business owner and Republican executive committeeman in Michigan's 9th Congressional District.
"I may not always agree with him, but he exudes trust," Van Dyke said. "When he's speaking, he makes complicated issues seem simple."
At a VIP reception with Republicans who paid at least $150 to huddle with him before the fundraiser, Graham's cell phone rang.
"John!" he exclaimed into the phone.
"McCain," Graham mouthed silently to the party activists as their eyes widened.
McCain, the Arizona senator and Republican presidential nominee, would call Graham twice more later in the evening.
Graham caused a stir when he entered Andiamo, a popular Italian restaurant, for dinner after the fundraiser.
One well-wisher after another approached Graham as he sat at a circular table in the middle of the main room.
"I admire your work," said John Jerge, vice president of an axle-manufacturing firm in Detroit. "We live in a screwed-up state."
His wife, Mary Ann Jerge, leaned into Graham and whispered: "We're the only Republicans left in our neighborhood."
The economic turmoil now roiling the nation hit Michigan two years ago. Large swaths of downtown Detroit are still abandoned, while empty storefronts fill once-bustling suburban shopping malls.
The Big Three automakers, crumbling pillars of American capitalism, have imposed waves of layoffs and plant closings, with the stock prices of Ford and General Motors tumbling to record lows.
Throughout the greater Detroit region -- home to 3 million people -- sit empty homes in foreclosure, some at the choice of owners who just pulled up stakes and left them vacant.
To make matters worse for Michigan Republicans, McCain took down TV ads last week and pulled out staff from their state, a key battleground where he won the 2000 GOP presidential primary in his unsuccessful race against then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush.
The political retreat angered many local party activists, and some of them let Graham know it.
"All of us were stunned to see that Senator McCain pulled out of our state," said Mike Bishop, Republican leader of the Michigan Senate.
Graham blamed McCain's decision on limited campaign money. He attacked Obama, the Illinois senator and Democratic White House nominee, for breaking his early pledge to accept public funding and the accompanying spending restrictions.
"He's awash in money," Graham said of Obama. "We're not. We play by (campaign finance) rules that are good for the country."
As Graham spoke, an Obama ad ran on the large high-definition TV above the bar behind him.
Graham defended McCain's support of the $700 billion economic bailout plan Congress passed last week, a sore point with the GOP party faithful at the fundraiser.
"It's big government at its worst," said Jack Hoogendyk, a Republican Michigan House member who is challenging Democratic U.S. Sen. Carl Levin in the election next month.
Graham, who also voted for the financial rescue, said it was necessary to reverse a housing slump that's devastating the broader economy.
"How many of you own houses worth less than you owe the bank?" Graham asked.
"Most of us!" yelled out Theresa Mungioli, executive vice president of the 9th District Republican Party.
Graham asked the GOP activists how McCain had performed in his second debate with Obama the night before.
"I don't think McCain did very well," said Van Dyke, the local business owner. "He didn't show he's willing to defend the country."
Others said they were befuddled by McCain's new pledge in the debate to have the federal government buy distressed mortgages and renegotiate their terms.
Mungioli said Obama, in the debate and his TV ads, was relaxed and direct.
"Senator McCain isn't getting his message across because he's not speaking directly enough with the people," she said.
Graham drew murmurs of approval as he attacked Obama for his past ties to 1960s radical Bill Ayers and accused Obama of being a lackey to Democratic leaders who "saw in him someone who would do their bidding."
"A front man!" a woman yelled.
"Why didn't McCain say that in the debate?" asked Dr. Bruce Henderson, an orthopedic surgeon.
Graham urged the Republican faithful not to give up.
"Keep fighting!" Graham exclaimed. "This thing's going to get a lot tighter!"