These days, Sen. Lindsey Graham isn't deriding town hall hecklers as a bunch of "angry white guys," or branding as losers conservative activists who criticize him at the state convention and pointing to the exit signs.
He's not writing New York Times columns with Sen. John Kerry on the dangers of climate change, or working with the likes of the late Sen. Ted Kennedy and one-time GOP maverick-in-chief Sen. John McCain on comprehensive immigration reform.
Midway through his second Senate term, and starting his 18th year in Congress, the Seneca Republican is no longer predicting the demise of the tea party, pitching the importance of the green economy, or warning that the Chinese will leave us in the dust if we don't put a price on carbon.
Is Graham just being the shrewd politician that his noisy detractors and many admirers agree he is?
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Herald
Is he merely adapting to the times, repositioning himself in the wake of the tea party rise and the ascension of South Carolina's junior senator, Jim DeMint, to the status of national conservative icon?
Or is the senator afraid of a serious Senate Republican primary challenge in a couple years when he's up for re-election again?
Graham sat in his Capitol Hill office last week, the American and South Carolina flags unfurled behind his desk. He pondered these questions for a moment or two - which for Lindsey Graham, from whom jokes and policy stands flow equally fast, is a rhetorical eternity.
When he responded, he started in typical fashion.
"I fear God," he quipped with a quick laugh.
Then he segued into serious thoughts that sounded like the outline of a stump speech.
"My profile is - I'm conservative, not an ideologue," Graham told McClatchy. "There's no momentum for immigration reform, it's kind of just stopped."
Graham didn't mention that maybe one reason it's stopped is he's gone from being an outspoken reformer to floating the idea of a constitutional amendment to deny "birthright citizenship" to the children of illegal immigrants.
Graham also now opposes the Dream Act, which would give undocumented workers permanent residency if they arrived in the United States as a minor and attend college or serve in the military.
"I don't think I've been better prepared to help the state and the nation than I am now," Graham continued.
"I think that all I've done for these years has put me in a good position to be a strong voice on national security," he said. "I want to be a guy that Democrats can find common ground with on the issues of the day. I want to do something on Social Security and Medicare. I want to find a way to get tea party Republicans and conservative Reagan Republicans like myself and some middle-of-the-road Democrats in a room to solve problems."
Asked again if he fears a primary fight, Graham cut to the chase.
"No, I don't fear one - I expect one," he said. "In politics, you have to earn these jobs, and I just feel real prepared."
In his first Senate re-election campaign in 2008, Graham swamped GOP challenger Buddy Witherspoon, a Lexington orthodontist and long-time party rabble-rouser, with 67 percent of the vote compared to Witherspoon's 33 percent. Graham then defeated Democratic nominee Bob Conley, a North Myrtle Beach pilot, in a 58-42 percent general election tally.
Now, in Myrtle Beach, tea party leader Joe Dugan is already marshaling his forces of alarmed activists to make sure Graham faces a more formidable foe in 2014.
"Graham is really an outcast," Dugan said. "He stands out like a sore thumb in a state as conservative as South Carolina. I wish he were up for re-election this year so we could vote him out."
Good luck with that, said Barry Wynn, a former state Republican Party chairman.
Wynn, DeMint's campaign treasurer and co-owner of the Colonial Trust Co. investment firm in Spartanburg, has close ties with conservative activists across the state.
"I can tell you there are some noisy people who would like to run somebody against Lindsey Graham, but they really represent a fairly small minority," Wynn said. "My money would be on Lindsey to win any Republican primary in the state by a landslide. I just think it's incredibly exaggerated that Lindsey's vulnerable."
In a Clemson University GOP presidential poll last November, Graham fared reasonably well among Republican voters: 63 percent approved of his performance as senator vs. 23 percent who disapproved.
Wynn and other prominent South Carolina Republicans say Graham is extremely popular with the state's business leaders. They appreciate his work on issues ranging from opposing the failed bid by the National Labor Relations Board to prevent Boeing from opening a plant in North Charleston to his ongoing efforts to get federal funds for deepening the Charleston port.
"If somebody's going to tackle Lindsey, they'd better pack two lunches because he's going to eat the first one," said Katon Dawson of Columbia, also a former state GOP chief.
"He's always going to be well-financed," Dawson said. "And Lindsey is probably more informed on national issues than most senators in Washington. He's paid a tremendous amount of attention to problems back home, he's accessible, he works hard and he's got an amazing breadth of knowledge."
The GOP leaders also cite Graham's support among active duty and retired military personnel, who like his hawkish views, his active duty service in Iraq and Afghanistan as a military lawyer in the Air Force Reserve and his friendships with powerful folks in high places.
One of them is CIA director David Petraeus, the retired general who became a Graham fan while commanding U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"Senator Graham is a devoted patriot, a steadfast supporter of our military, an accomplished Air Force Reserve officer, a terrific wit and a great guy to have in your corner and watching your back," Petraeus told an audience of South Carolina political and business leaders last month at the Columbia Convention Center.
As a judge advocate general in the Air Force Reserve, Graham helped the fledgling Iraqi and Afghan governments set up judicial and law-enforcement systems during his active-duty stints there.
In Congress, Graham used his expertise to help craft laws on detaining, interrogating and trying alleged terrorists.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, with whom Graham worked in 2005 when she was a senator to provide full military health benefits to reservists and National Guard members, has sent him on secret missions abroad since assuming the nation's top diplomatic post three years ago.
Classified diplomatic cables, released by Wikileaks and obtained by McClatchy, show Graham warning Pakistani government leaders against appeasing radical Muslims and upbraiding Chinese officials about currency manipulation, only to be scolded by them for meddling in domestic affairs.
State coordinator for the South Carolina Tea Party coalition, he's putting out feelers to prospective Graham challengers. He declined to name them, but dropped some tantalizing hints. Asked whether he's courting freshman Rep. Tim Scott, another fast-rising conservative star from South Carolina and one of two black Republicans in Congress, Dugan responded: "You're getting warm."
Scott, a North Charleston Republican and former state representative, hastened to dampen such hopes with a denial that, if not ironclad, was fairly firm.
"I have no plans to run against the senator," he said.
Dugan and other conservative activists also are enamored of Scott's fellow first-term U.S. representatives, who with Scott made national headlines last summer by rejecting any and all compromises on raising the federal debt ceiling.
But all three - GOP Reps. Mick Mulvaney of Indian Land who represents York and Lancaster counties, Jeff Duncan of Laurens and Trey Gowdy of Spartanburg - disavowed interest in challenging Graham.
Not so with S.C. Sen. Tom Davis, a Beaufort Republican, real estate lawyer and one-time top aide to former Gov. Mark Sanford.
Word on the street is he's actively contemplating a 2014 run against Graham. More than a dozen GOP leaders and activists interviewed by McClatchy all said they're aware of his interest.
At the recent annual convention of the Conservative Political Action Committee in Washington, a South Carolina political operative with close ties to Davis, who was granted anonymity in order to speak candidly, put the odds at "better than 50-50" that he'll take on Graham. Asked about the prospect, Davis responded: "I haven't really given it any thought."
He quickly corrected himself.
"That's not fair," he said. "Obviously as a politician you look at the opportunities that might lie ahead."
While insisting he's focused on getting re-elected to his state Senate seat this year, Davis gave the kind of noncommittal answer that in political-speak leaves his options open as wide as a barn door.
"I haven't ruled anything out, and I haven't ruled anything in," he said.
Davis then gave an assessment of Graham that sounded as if he's already running against him.
"I do disagree with him in regard to his policies on cap and trade," Davis said. "I do disagree with him on immigration. I do disagree with him on confirming the two nominees to the Supreme Court (Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan) that President Obama put forward."
Davis warmed to the topic.
"Certainly in a Republican primary, there are a growing number of people who have concerns about the size of government that don't match the level of concern that Lindsey Graham seems to have," he said. "I've been critical of him and some other Republicans who I don't think take the deficit and debt as seriously as they should."
Graham rejects such criticism, noting his longtime support for a balanced-budget amendment to the Constitution.
Yet the senator readily contrasted his focus on streamlining the federal government and making it more efficient with many tea party activists' desire to slash it significantly, eliminate whole agencies and leave only a few core functions.
"At the end of the day, you can talk about reshaping the government," Graham said. "Ronald Reagan did it incrementally. He tried to bring about change. But are we going to stop veterans' checks? Are we going to basically not pay the military? Somebody up here has to make sure that we find a way to do the basics of government."
Graham acknowledged that his relatively new seat on the Senate Appropriations Committee, which he joined in January 2011 in order to get funding for the Charleston port deepening and other essential South Carolina needs, requires him to back bills by other panel members in order to gain their support.
"It's pretty hard for me to work with my colleagues to get funding for the port - an account that will help the port of Charleston - and vote no," Graham said.
That may explain the difference between the votes by Graham and DeMint last year on 12 key spending bills that funded all or parts of the government for varying amounts of time: DeMint voted against all of them; Graham voted for eight and against four.
Howell plans to vote for anybody who might challenge Graham in a 2014 Senate Republican primary, but he's not hopeful about the outcome.
"It's going to be real hard to get him out of there," Howell said. "He has the support of the mainstream Republicans. He's very strong with the business community. I don't know anybody in South Carolina that could beat him right now. Tim Scott could give him a better run than Tom Davis, but I just don't see him getting beat. It's unfortunate."