Graham in hot water over high profile on immigration

Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., center, accompanied by Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., left, and Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., have been leaders in backing an immigration reform bill on Capitol Hill.
Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., center, accompanied by Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., left, and Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., have been leaders in backing an immigration reform bill on Capitol Hill.

WASHINGTON -- Lee Rogers, chairman of the Anderson County Republican Party, was at the beach last week when his cell phone rang.

It was an urgent call from one of Rogers' Upstate GOP activists.

"He asked me what I was going to do to find somebody to run against Lindsey Graham (next year)," Rogers said. "I explained to the gentleman that's not something I can put together as a single county chairman. That's got to happen with the people."

It could be happening.

Graham, a Seneca Republican nearing the end of his first Senate term, has taken plenty of heat before, but perhaps never like this.

Thanks to his high-profile help in crafting an immigration reform bill that has stalled in the Senate, constituents call and leave screaming messages on his office voice mail.

"NO AMNESTY! NO AMNESTY!" one repeat caller yells for a minute or more in angry overnight messages that greet his aides in the morning.

Graham's staff estimates that his Senate offices have received about 3,000 letters, phone calls, e-mails and faxes about immigration in the last month, most of them critical of him.

Talk-radio hosts within and beyond South Carolina deride Graham as a Ted Kennedy toady.

Rush Limbaugh has taken to calling him "Lindsey Grah-amnesty."

Bloggers challenge his manhood, assault his patriotism, mock his intellect.

Still worse for where he comes from, they belittle his Southern bonafides.

Furious Republican loyalists lobby online for someone -- anyone -- to step forward and challenge Graham in the 2008 party primary when he seeks re-election.

One Web site, www.dumplindsey.org, gets dozens of comments a day, few of them friendly.

"Did anyone go and see Benedict Arnold Graham and bring rotten eggs and tomatoes?" a blogger named j_richard wrote in the comments section of a Greenville News article about a recent appearance there by Graham to boost the immigration bill.

The names of possible GOP primary challengers to Graham fly across the Internet: Gov. Mark Sanford, U.S. Rep. Gresham Barrett, Attorney General Henry McMaster, Charlie Condon, Mark McBride, Oscar Lovelace, Greg Ryberg and Buddy Witherspoon.

The name mentioned most often is State Treasurer Thomas Ravenel.

In an online survey last week, SCHotline.com asked whether Ravenel should break his treasury campaign pledge not to challenge Graham next year. Among 342 responders, 53 percent said "yes" while 47 percent chose "no."

"He's humbled and flattered that there are folks out there who are mentioning his name as a (Senate) candidate, but he believes in honoring his commitment," Scott Malyerk, a spokesman for Ravenel, said Friday. "Nothing's changed."

$4M campaign war chest

With Graham's high national as well as statewide name recognition and his campaign war chest approaching $4 million, GOP political operatives say, any window for mounting a viable campaign against him is closing fast.

"There could be some potential political damage, but whether or not his nomination is in jeopardy, I don't know," said Rogers of Anderson County. "If somebody's going to do it, they need to do it now, and they need to get at it."

Graham said he's ready for any opponent, Republican or Democrat.

"Anyone who runs against me better get up early and stay late because I think I've been one heck of a good senator for my state and my party," Graham said Friday in an interview. "I intend to seek office on the basis that I am not afraid to do what needs to be done."

To claim that Graham, 51, takes all the anger directed at him in stride would be a stretch.

But he says the political fire and brimstone comes with his job -- especially the way he views it.

"You can call me by any name you want to call me," Graham said. "I'm 51 years old, and I'm not going to be deterred by ugly things being said about me. If I am no bigger than that, I'm in the wrong job. If I cannot withstand the ugly things being said about me in order to do what I think is right for my state and my country, then I'm letting most people down."

He knows controversy

Graham is no stranger to controversy. Sometimes, he seems almost to revel in it.

From floating the idea of raising taxes to solidify Social Security and advocating fairness for alleged terrorists, to joining the "Gang of 14" centrist senators who prevented a Senate showdown over judicial nominees, Graham has been in the middle of the thorniest issues.

Liberals exorcised Graham in 1998 for his leading role in the House impeachment trial of President Clinton.

Now, hardcore conservatives are accusing him of giving lawbreakers a piece of the American dream by backing legal status for the estimated 12 million undocumented foreigners in the country.

David Whetsell, a retired heating and air conditioner installer and maintenance man for Lexington public schools, said he regrets having voted for Graham during his first Senate run in 2002.

In an entry on dumplindsey.org, Whetsell asked state legislators to grant South Carolina voters the right to recall Graham from office.

"I'm an advocate of recalling him now and not waiting 18 months," Whetsell said Friday in an interview. "Him and Ted Kennedy are marching hand in hand."