Four months ago, Mark Sanford debated a cardboard cutout of Nancy Pelosi. The symbolic message: He was the conservative in the 1st Congressional District race.

On Tuesday night at North Charleston City Hall, a “Lindsey Graham Town Hall,” staged by “Lowcountry conservatives” and Washington-based FreedomWorks, featured a cardboard cutout of South Carolina’s senior senator.

The symbolic message: Sen. Graham refused to show up because he didn’t want to answer questions about his perceived status as a “RINO” (Republican In Name Only).

But according to Sen. Graham’s office, he was in Africa on Tuesday — though his spokesman wouldn’t be more specific.

As for the contention that Sen. Graham is insufficiently conservative, he will have ample opportunities to counter that charge before GOP primary voters decide whether to renominate him for a third term next June. He already has three announced primary opponents — all of them coming at him from the right.

However, Sen. Graham has drawn consistently high marks from the National Taxpayers Union for backing federal-spending restraint.

He also has been an ardent, effective critic of the Obama administration’s mishandling of last September’s terrorist attack that killed four Americans, including Ambassador Christopher Stevens, in Benghazi, Libya.

Still, Sen. Graham’s critics cast his long-time support of comprehensive immigration reform as a betrayal of the conservative cause.

If that’s the case, then Florida Sen. Marco Rubio must not be a conservative, either.

Yet Mr. Rubio launched a successful challenge of his own — from the right — against the Florida GOP establishment’s 2010 choice for the U.S. Senate, Charlie Crist.

And what’s so conservative about sticking with the long-term status quo of failed federal immigration policies?

Sen. Graham also has been criticized from the right for refusing to join in an effort to “defund” the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.

The idea is for the Republican-run House to vote against money for Obamacare, and for the GOP minority in the Democratic Senate to block the law’s funding with a filibuster threat.

But Sen. Graham and other Republican realists in both chambers are rightly wary of the political damage their party would suffer if it were cast — as the GOP was in 1995 and ’96 — as the instigator of a government shutdown.

The Sept. 2 issue of National Review, an influential conservative journal, warns: “We look forward to the day that Obamacare is defunded (and entirely repealed, for that matter), but a shutdown confrontation is not a magic bullet, or even a plausible weapon.”

And we look forward to the debate between Sen. Graham and his challengers next year.

For instance, Sen. Graham will have to defend his habit of advocating U.S. military interventions, a pattern re-confirmed over the weekend by his renewed call for “decisive actions” against Syria.

Meanwhile, though, keep in mind that Sen. Graham is no cardboard cutout. He’s a widely respected legislator who has demonstrated his ability to work across party lines for conservative goals — and the common good.

Keep in mind, too, that when lawmakers seek reasonable middle ground, they’re not betraying their ideals.

They’re doing their jobs.