South Carolina: A central front in battle for GOP soul

WASHINGTON -- The national debate among Republicans over their party's future is nowhere sharper than in South Carolina, where Sens. Lindsey Graham and Jim DeMint pursue distinctly different visions for restoring GOP primacy at the polls.

Graham and DeMint, who profess to be friends and live within an hour's drive of each other in the conservative Upstate, prescribe conflicting cures for the Republican ailments that led to sweeping defeats in the last two national elections.

Graham, a Seneca Republican elected to his second term last year, says the party must stop alienating young people and Hispanics and start promoting pragmatic, "center-right solutions" to the country's most pressing problems.

"I'm trying to make sure that conservatism doesn't get hijacked by political fringes," Graham told McClatchy. "I don't want to be in a party that's consistently losing market share. Our problem is we're going to have to broaden the base of our party."

Graham joins many other analysts in predicting a GOP rebound in the 2010 elections, but he says shifting demographics among younger, more diverse voters will challenge Republicans over the next decade or two.

DeMint, a Greenville Republican seeking to win a second term next year, believes that young voters and ethnic Americans will flock to GOP candidates if they push plain conservative principles and offer a stark contrast to Democrats.

"When someone provides a clear alternative to continued government growth and spending, people respond to that, even in different states like Pennsylvania or Florida or Ohio," he said. "As long as the Republican Party doesn't stand for anything, it doesn't matter whether we have 50 or 55 or 60 votes in the Senate."

Graham believes in the art of compromise and says partisan politics can't create jobs, reverse climate change, provide good health care or address other major concerns.

"The overwhelming majority of conservatives and independents appreciate the fact that their elected leaders are trying to solve hard problems," Graham said.

"South Carolinians could care less who I work with," he said. "Most people in South Carolina are looking for their elected officials to improve their lives, get the unemployment situation turned around and help our environment to get cleaner."

DeMint says lawmakers from both parties have been on a spending binge. True compromise, he claims, is impossible with Democrats.

"Both parties talk about fiscal responsibility and cutting out waste, but we haven't cut one program since I've been up here for 10 years," DeMint said. "What I'm trying to do is put out a marker of where we should go."

"The Democrats want to centralize power and grow government," he said. "Their idea of compromise is growing government a little slower. That's not a compromise to me."

Some Republicans blame DeMint for helping compel former Republican Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania to switch parties in April -- which put the Democrats closer to holding a filibuster-proof 60 Senate seats.

DeMint told Specter that he was backing former Rep. Pat Toomey, founder of the Club for Growth conservative advocacy group, in their GOP primary next year.

Closer to home, DeMint has declined to endorse Rep. Bob Inglis, a Travelers Rest Republican who also faces significant 2010 primary opposition from four foes who say he's not conservative enough. Graham has endorsed Inglis for re-election.

Graham and DeMint have split as well in the closely watched Florida primary race for a U.S. Senate seat. Graham backs Gov. Charlie Crist, a moderate Republican, while DeMint supports his more conservative opponent, former Florida House Speaker Marco Rubio.

"I would rather have 30 Republicans in the Senate who really believe in principals of limited government, free markets, free people, than to have 60 that don't have a set of beliefs," DeMint told the Washington Examiner in a comment that has been widely quoted.

To Graham, DeMint's notion is a recipe for perpetual Republican minority status in Congress.

"At the end of the day, I believe that in Delaware and Connecticut and Illinois and Nevada, we're going to have to recruit candidates with a broader appeal," Graham said. "I don't want 30 pure Republicans because (Senate Majority Leader) Harry Reid would be the biggest beneficiary. (Democrats) could run over us."

As Graham and DeMint have joined Sen. John McCain, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and other prominent Republicans in recasting their party, the two South Carolina senators are drawing national attention for their controversial stances.

Graham infuriated conservative activists two weeks ago by co-authoring a New York Times column on climate change with Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, the 2004 Democratic presidential nominee.

Graham and Kerry sketched a potential compromise with Democrats allowing offshore oil drilling and new nuclear power plants, and Republicans recognizing the urgency of global warming and accepting caps on carbon emissions from big factories and power plants.

Appearing before agitated constituents in Greenville the next day, amid yells of "Traitor!" and shouted demands to switch parties, Graham responded:

"We're not going to be the party of angry white guys."

Graham vowed to continue working with Democrats in building bipartisan coalitions to address global warming, health care, Afghanistan and other key challenges,

"If you don't like it, you can leave," he told his detractors at the Furman University meeting.

Graham's remarks prompted Fox TV commentator Glenn Beck, who is wildly popular among conservatives, to deliver a long diatribe against him, holding up his photo, jabbing it repeatedly and then pinning it to a bulletin board with pictures of President Barack Obama and other Democrats.

Graham caused similar chagrin among activists in August when he joined 11 Democratic and Republican senators in introducing a compromise health care bill and publishing an op-ed column promoting it.

At Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor's confirmation hearing in late July, Graham drew praise from editorial writers and other commentators around the country for his defense of voting for the first Hispanic judge to sit on the high court.

The only Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee to vote to confirm Sotomayor, Graham did Spanish-language TV interviews after the historic vote while other GOP senators denounced her.

Graham notes that the Republican share of the Hispanic vote dropped from 44 percent in 2004 to 31 percent in 2008.

While Graham is careful not to cite his fellow S.C. senator by name, he believes that the DeMint-led defeat of a 2007 Senate package of major immigration reforms hurt Republicans badly among Hispanics, and that most GOP senators' opposition to Sotomayor this year deepened the wound.

"The rhetoric during the immigration debate turned a lot of people off in the Hispanic community," Graham said.

DeMint, who first drew national notice in December 2006 by blocking almost $1 billion in spending earmarks, has shown little inclination to soften his brand of hard-edged conservatism.

DeMint became the face of opposition to Obama's health care overhaul in July after he used strong words in urging conservatives to help defeat it.

"If we're able to stop Obama on this, it will be his Waterloo," DeMint said. "It will break him."

DeMint's salvo sparked a nationwide ad campaign by the Democratic Party attacking the GOP as "the party of no." Obama called out DeMint at a White House news conference.

DeMint was the only U.S. senator who addressed tens of thousands of "tea party" protesters rallying against Obama on Sept. 12 outside the U.S. Capitol.

"Ladies and gentleman, welcome to Waterloo!" DeMint exclaimed to thunderous cheers. "We stand today in a critical battle for the heart and soul of America. It is a battle between big-government collectivism and freedom-loving Americans."

In the video of DeMint's speech on his Web site, a sign shows Obama in a giant peapod with former Cuban leader Fidel Castro and Venezuelan President Huge Chavez.

Other signs at the rally grouped Obama with al Qaeda head Osama bin Laden and Nazi leader Adolf Hitler.

A Sept. 28 profile of DeMint in New Yorker magazine pegged him as a rising star among core Republicans who think the party has gone astray in recent years.

DeMint, who owned a marketing firm before coming to Washington, said in the profile that he views his role as giving voice to frustrated Americans and to jolting his colleagues from their bipartisan, clubby conviviality.

"The Senate is going to be the last place that changes," DeMint said. "It's downstream of everything else. It's what we in marketing used to call 'the late adopters' (in buying new devices). And when (senators) see people rioting in the streets, they'll say, 'Wait a minute, maybe we ought to go where they're going.'"

DeMint denied that he is encouraging extremism or sanctioning violent protests, though he acknowledged that he might have chosen his words more carefully in the magazine interview.

"That's not what I meant," he told McClatchy. "It was more of an exaggeration to get the Senate's attention. Everywhere I speak, my emphasis is always peaceful and nonviolent. We certainly don't want riots, but we certainly do need to get the attention of Congress. When people take to the streets and speak out, Congress will pay attention."

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