Updated at: 03/14/2013 5:09 PM
By CHARLES BABINGTON and JEFFREY COLLINS
(AP) WASHINGTON - To gauge the limits of the tea party’s ability to frighten re-election-seeking Republicans into a rightward panic, spend time with Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina.
One day he’s blasting tea party hero Rand Paul on the Senate floor, calling the Kentucky senator’s 13-hour filibuster _ which criticized U.S. drone policy _ wrong-headed and "ill-informed."
Another day Graham is at a groundbreaking ceremony in Greer, S.C., mixing jokes and politics in a fashion even his enemies have to admire. Citing a January CBS News poll showing Congress’ approval rating at 12 percent, he asked: "Who are the 12 percent, and what do they like?"
Three years ago, South Carolina Republican clubs were condemning Graham, calling him too moderate and too willing to cooperate with President Barack Obama and other Democrats. Nikki Haley, now the state’s governor, supported the censures. Graham seemed a prime candidate for the type of tea-party-backed insurrections that ousted GOP senators in Utah and Indiana, and prompted other senators to steer hard right to save their jobs.
Today, even his critics say Graham is on track to win a third Senate term next year.
"His approval numbers are pretty high," said Lin Bennett, executive director of the Charleston County Republican Party, one of two major groups that censured Graham three years ago for supporting a bank bailout and for being too accommodating on immigration.
"He offers great constituent services," Bennett said. "One unhappy county isn’t enough."
Graham calls himself a proud conservative. But he makes no apologies for sometimes seeking compromise with Democrats, which some tea partyers consider villainy.
"How do we get out of this mess?" Graham asked the Greer crowd, referring to the nation’s economic troubles. "The same way the country has survived and thrived for the last 200 years: find common ground. Try to find a way to make everybody a winner instead of everybody a loser."
Graham’s bipartisan talk contrasts with the recent tones of Senate Republican leaders Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and John Cornyn. Both men face possible GOP primary challenges from the right next year, and they have sharpened their criticisms of Democrats.
Graham didn’t pass judgment on fellow Republicans. But he said politicians needn’t kowtow to ideological groups if they visit their home districts regularly and explain their positions forthrightly.
"I’ve been fortunate enough to be judged by the body of my work," he said in an interview in his Senate office. "I don’t worry obsessively about my political re-election. And I’ve become a very good senator. If you don’t overly worry about losing, you become hard to beat."
All politicians and states are different, so Graham’s lessons and luck may not apply elsewhere. But by any measure he’s folksier and friendlier than the standoffish McConnell. He’s far more visible in his home state than was Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana, defeated in last year’s GOP primary. And he seems unlikely to be caught off guard by hard-right insurgencies, as were Republican senators in recent years in Utah and Alaska.
Graham "is a ferocious campaigner, especially when he gets back home," said Katon Dawson, a former South Carolina Republican Party chairman and a major Graham fundraiser. "Lindsey doesn’t have a lot of hobbies." The Senate and politics are "a lifestyle, and he works hard," Dawson said.
Some South Carolina tea partyers still hope to challenge Graham in next year’s primary. But they lost perhaps their best prospect when state Sen. Tom Davis _ a libertarian-leaning former top aide to Gov. Mark Sanford _ declined to run.
Another state senator, Lee Bright of Spartanburg, might try. Graham’s criticisms of Paul’s filibuster "kind of pushed me over the edge," Bright said.
But some South Carolinians see Bright as a fringe candidate.
Meanwhile, Graham has a formidable campaign fund of more than $4 million and rising. Assuming Graham survives the GOP primary, as expected, he is "completely bullet proof" in a general election against a Democrat, Dawson said.
Non-South Carolinians might be amused to hear Republicans debate whether Graham is conservative enough. Four years before being elected to the Senate he was one of 13 House managers for President Bill Clinton’s impeachment. He sharply criticizes Obama at times, calling presidential budget plans "a road map to disaster."
Like his pal and mentor Arizona Sen. John McCain, however, Graham often carves an independent path. Despite conservative attacks on Republican senators who have voted to confirm Obama’s judicial nominees, Graham says presidents should get their choices barring something that’s clearly disqualifying.
"I don’t know how to construct a world where we get all of our judges, and they never get any of theirs," he said.
Graham says he would consider higher tax revenues in exchange for serious changes to Medicare and Social Security. His says immigration reform must include a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants. Both stands are anathema to many conservative activists.
Graham most recently drew their fire for joining McCain in denouncing Paul’s highly publicized filibuster. Paul _ a libertarian Republican weighing a presidential bid _ demanded White House assurances that unmanned aircraft will not be used to kill American citizens on U.S. soil and not engaged in combat.
Graham called the question groundless and defended Obama’s use of deadly drones against terrorist suspects overseas. He shrugged off the resulting torrent of angry tweets and e-mails, saying he and Paul get along fine.
"Rand and I play golf together," Graham said. They differ on surveillance and other anti-terrorism policies, he said, "but these differences have been around forever in the Republican Party."
Graham supports a "big-tent" GOP, which is disdained by those conservatives who say Republicans have become too wishy-washy and too willing to compromise.
"Partisan ideas, on big issues, never fare well over time," he said. He cited Obama’s embattled overhaul of health care as an example.
As for the nation’s economic challenges, he said, "the path off the road to becoming Greece is a shared path."
If the Republican Party is to thrive, Graham said, it must have "tea party libertarians, tea party conservatives, married up with traditional Republicans. That’s the coalition of the future."
So far, most South Carolina Republicans seem disinclined to punish him for that vision.
Collins reported from South Carolina.
(Copyright 2013 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)