Graham says he won't back down from speaking his mind

COLUMBIA -- U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham received two standing ovations Monday night from a packed Richland County Republican Party meeting, a far cry from a pair of censuring motions in the Upstate over the past month.

Still, Graham faced pointed questions and shouted down one heckler over his support for a controversial immigration reform bill that died in the Senate.

The Greenville County Republican Party executive committee voted to censure Graham over immigration Aug. 8, and a similar motion in Spartanburg County failed last week by one vote. Graham was not present for either meeting.

But Monday, speaking to the Richland County executive committee, Graham in person met a much kinder crowd.

"You know what my goal is?" said Graham, who is up for re-election in 2008. "Not for universal agreement. But for a little bit of respect. I don't like someone being with me on Thursday and being on the other side Friday because of some newspaper article. We've got too much of that going on."

But Graham said he also has no plans to change his approach to governing.

"People in South Carolina have a tradition of sending people to Congress who speak their mind and stand up for what they believe," he said.

Graham couched the immigration debate as being largely about national security and said preventing illegal immigrants from sneaking across the border is only half the battle. Forty percent of illegal immigrants in the country came with legal visas and never left.

"If you don't deal with the visas, four out of 10 of them you're going to miss," Graham said.

The first three-quarters of Graham's address dealt not with immigration, but with the war in Iraq. Graham just returned from serving 11 days in Iraq in his other role as a colonel in the Air Force Reserve.

"Things are getting better," Graham said. "Let me tell you, ladies and gentlemen, the surge is working. The worst thing we can do now is let these guys off the mat. We've got them on the run."

Of calls from Democrats or Republicans who believe withdrawing American troops is the right course of action, Graham said, "I respectfully disagree."

But it was immigration that generated heat Monday night. John McLean, of Columbia, a retired veteran, distributed anti-Graham literature that, among other things, called Graham a "traitor" for his support of the immigration bill.

Illegal immigrants, he said, come to the United States, and "they give them credit cards and driver's licenses, the taxpayers are giving to these groups. They've lost contact with the American people!"

But Tommy Gregory of Columbia, also retired, said he supported Graham and his position on immigration.

"At least he had a solution," Gregory said. "Right now we're not doing anything about it. I hate to see all the criticism he's getting."