The shouts of "traitor" that rained on Republican U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham last week at a local town hall meeting revealed rifts among conservatives that some analysts say might signal trouble for center-right politicians such as Graham.
Political experts say a burgeoning group of right-wing activists long seen as the fringe of the party is growing in influence, fueled by economic fears and populist ire over unchecked Washington spending and magnified by the power of the Internet.
Whether they represent a vocal minority or the seeds of a serious election challenge for Graham remains to be seen, though at least one Republican consultant thinks the state's senior senator has "real problems" outside of just a raucous town hall meeting.
"If he were running right now, he'd be in serious trouble," said Dave Woodard, a Clemson University political science professor and former campaign manager for Graham who said he has Upstate polling to support his view.
Graham, re-elected last year to another six-year term, flatly rejected that idea, describing the crowd at his town hall meeting this week as 40 percent Constitution Party members who are about to spark a "backlash" because of their "radical" views.
"They're a political fringe group," Graham told The Greenville News. "They believe that Medicare is unconstitutional and student loans are unconstitutional. I'm the conservative in the room."
The Furman University forum rapidly drew national attention via YouTube videos and political blogs last week, and Graham appeared to relish the chance to respond to hecklers, repeatedly telling them to "chill out" and that if they didn't like his efforts to build a big-tent party they could leave.
"I'm going to grow this party. I'm not going to let it be hijacked by Ron Paul," Graham said to boos and a shower of retorts from some in the crowd, many of whom identified themselves as supporters of the Texas congressman.
Danielle Vinson, a Furman political science professor who introduced Graham at this week's forum, said the anti-Graham movement means that he is more likely to see primary opposition from the right in every election.
The conservative crowd that showed up at Furman this week is still in the minority statewide, Vinson said, but might not be far from representing commonly held views in Greenville and is "very active" compared to less engaged moderates that make up Graham's more natural base.
Still, she said Graham probably realizes he can cut his losses in Greenville and that he has plenty of time to maintain his stature elsewhere in the district.
Woodard is not so sure.
Before, he said a moderate U.S. senator from South Carolina could practice a science perfected by former Sen. Ernest "Fritz" Hollings -- vote how he wanted early in his term, then veer to the right in time to secure re-election. Now, YouTube and partisan Web sites give permanence to remarks that can inflame a critical crowd.
Graham said the people who are angry with him still will feel the same way on Election Day but that he has the broad support of business owners, social and fiscal conservatives, military families, anti-abortion groups and gun rights advocates.
However, he said he won't go as far as some conservatives want.
"There's an element in politics, it's not enough to agree with them on the issue, you've got to hate who they hate," Graham said, estimating that a quarter of attendees at his town hall meeting raised their hands to indicate they thought Democrats were "devils."
"I'm not going to build a political career around hating people," he said.
Woodard said Graham now appears to make a point of his forays across the aisle to work with Democrats.
Furman's Vinson said Graham needs to get past those headline-grabbing moves and remind voters of what is essentially a conservative record.
The American Conservative Union gave Graham a conservative rating of 82 last year - behind some conservatives such as DeMint of Greenville and Jon Kyl of Arizona but ahead of numerous others including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and Kansas Sen. Sam Brownback.
The Washington Post's congressional vote database shows Graham voting with the majority of his party 90.7 percent of the time.
It's sharing the state with DeMint that might hurt Graham the most among arch-conservatives, Vinson said.
Vinson said the people who screamed at Graham this week and accused him of violating his oath of office are motivated, have a "siege mentality" because of election losses and don't seem to care about the math required to get legislation through Congress.
Woodard said, "They're feeling sort of like they've lost control of a lot of things."
He said he has become alarmed at the topics he's asked about that weigh heavily on the minds of some people.
They will ask what would happen if the president is assassinated, or if the entire economy collapses, or if China decides to call in its loans to the United States, Woodard said.
Graham said he doesn't think the vocal fringe is gaining ground.
"I am intent on making sure that people do not judge the county by this group," he said. "If this ever became the face of Greenville County, it would be harder to recruit industry."
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