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Bush, Graham getting along better these days

WASHINGTON -- The relationship between President Bush and Sen. Lindsey Graham has come a long way.

At a sun-capped fundraiser Friday, Bush and Graham stood side by side in Columbia, extolling each other's independence of thought and integrity of spirit to hundreds of well-heeled Republicans.

It wasn't always so.

Less than eight years ago, Graham, then a U.S. House member, supported Sen. John McCain's battle against Bush for the 2000 GOP White House nomination.

That struggle culminated in South Carolina, where Bush bested McCain after a brutal campaign in which shadowy operatives challenged McCain's patriotism, questioned his sanity and said his wife was addicted to prescription drugs.

McCain eventually swallowed his bitterness, campaigning with Bush in his 2004 re-election bid.

Since then, McCain and Graham backed Bush's efforts to privatize part of Social Security, reform the immigration system and defeat insurgents in Iraq.

The Social Security and immigration reforms failed. The war is bloody in Iraq and unpopular at home.

Graham feels close enough to Bush now that he kidded him about his bold initiatives as the two men held court at the home of Columbia City Councilman Kirkman Finlay III.

"I said one thing I admire about President Bush is he doesn't mind taking on hard things like Social Security and immigration," Graham said after the fundraiser. "I added, 'Both were hard -- you may have noticed.' He laughed, and everybody laughed."

In introducing Bush to GOP stalwarts who paid at least $250 a plate at the barbecue luncheon, Graham said, "A lot has happened on President Bush's watch. History will judge him."

Bush, in turn, thanked Graham for "being one of the most articulate spokesmen for why we've got to win" in Iraq, according to the senator.

Bush also credited Graham with having helped get Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito onto the Supreme Court.

That appreciation helps give Graham political cover for his controversial membership last year in the bipartisan 'Gang of 14' Senate compromisers who rejected some hard-line Republicans' bid to change long-standing filibuster rules.

By the end of the lunch, Bush had raised $600,000. Most will go to Graham's re-election campaign, which already has more than $4 million in the bank; the South Carolina Republican Party will get a share of the money.

Bush's appearance in Columbia came not quite four months after Graham accompanied the president to Charleston Air Force Base, where he addressed troops. Bush also spoke to soldiers Friday at Fort Jackson after the fundraiser.

Two presidential trips to the Palmetto State in a short time span raised questions about whether Graham feels vulnerable because of his support for helping undocumented immigrants gain legal status, which angered conservative activists in South Carolina and beyond.

Charlie Black, a prominent GOP political consultant in Washington, said Bush's appearances with Graham signal his political strength, not his weakness.

"You want (the president) to go into your incumbent races where you have pretty good leads early and help solidify them, and then worry about the more competitive seats next year," Black said. "Most observers think there will be a net loss of Republican Senate seats next year, not including Lindsey Graham, who has no significant opposition."

Among 34 Senate seats up for election in 2008, Republicans hold 22 and Democrats fill 12.

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