WASHINGTON -- President Bush will come to Columbia next week for a high-roller fundraiser for Sen. Lindsey Graham as the first-term Republican officially launches his 2008 re-election campaign.
Bush will keynote a minimum $250-a-plate barbecue luncheon next Friday, Nov. 2, at the posh home of Columbia City Councilman Kirkman Finlay III, who owns a cattle and hay farm off Garners Ferry Road near Fort Jackson.
Neither Graham nor the White House would confirm Bush's visit, but McClatchy Newspapers obtained the invitation going out GOP stalwarts around the state.
Highlighting Bush as the "featured guest," the invitation offers several levels of access to the president and Graham.
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Guests contributing at least $10,000 per couple will get their photo taken with Bush, while those donating at least $5,000 will be photographed with Graham.
McClatchy Newspapers also obtained an e-mail from Shell Suber, political director of Graham's campaign, to GOP county chairmen, seeking volunteers to help organize the Bush fundraiser and enjoy "a terrific opportunity to be part of a historic event."
Bush has attended fundraisers in Charleston and Greenville, but his appearance in Columbia will be his first fundraising visit to the state capital since becoming president in 2001.
Graham, who lives in Seneca in the Upstate, has more than $4 million in his campaign coffers and faces no major opposition from either party to date.
"President Bush is very popular in South Carolina, particularly among Republicans," Graham said in an interview. "If he were to come in support of my campaign, it would be very helpful, and I would be honored. I look forward to hopefully having him come to South Carolina and stand by my side."
Graham denied that he is nervous about his re-election prospects in the wake of his high-profile support earlier this year for immigration reforms that enraged many GOP activists in South Carolina and beyond.
"I'm going to be judged by what I've done for six years, not on one issue," Graham said. "I think most people in South Carolina appreciate having a senator who will speak his mind and stand up and be counted on the hard issues."
Rick Beltran, chairman of the Spartanburg County Republican Party, said anger over Graham's support for giving illegal immigrants legal status has ebbed in his area.
Graham had an approval rating of 55 percent in a recent poll of likely Spartanburg GOP voters, Beltran said, up from 41 percent in June.
"I'm pretty high on Senator Graham," Beltran said.
But Beltran's counterpart in nearby Greenville, Samuel Harms, said he wouldn't attend the fundraiser next week.
"We're 10 percent of the Republican vote in South Carolina," Harms said. "I think it's important that people believe that the chairman isn't playing favorites with one candidate over another. We do have a contested election."
Tim Carnes of Greenville and John Cina of Summerville have announced GOP primary challenges against Graham. Neither man has held elective office or raised significant campaign funds. Also in the race is Republican Gary McLeod, who has unsuccessfully sought the 6th Congressional District seat in the U.S. House several times.
Joe Irwin, former chairman of the South Carolina Democratic Party, said Wednesday that he wouldn't run against Graham. No other Democrat has stepped forward.
The Greenville County GOP executive committee passed a "resolution of censure" of Graham in August because of his support for immigration reforms.
Harms said the censure measure has led Graham to support stiffer immigration measures such as his legislation the Senate recently passed providing $3 billion to fortify the U.S.-Mexico border.
"The Greenville County Republican Party probably had a significant influence on Lindsey Graham changing course," Harms said. "America is a better place because of what we did."
News of Bush's visit capped a steady release by the Graham campaign in recent days of re-election endorsements from key South Carolina Republicans, including fellow Sen. Jim DeMint, Gov. Mark Sanford and the state's four Republican U.S. House members.
"South Carolina is always proud to welcome our commander in chief," DeMint said. "President Bush knows we need Lindsey back in the Senate, continuing to fight for strong national security, lower taxes and protecting life."
DeMint and Graham clashed openly over the Senate immigration bill in May and June, with DeMint helping defeat legislation crafted by Bush, Graham and a small group of bipartisan senators.
Graham, though, named DeMint as a co-chair of his re-election campaign, along with Sanford and S.C. House Speaker Bobby Harrell.
"The governor is looking forward to helping Lindsey in any way that he can," Joel Sawyer, a spokesman for Sanford, said Thursday.