Last year, U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham's meeting with the Charleston Tea Party was so tense that he began by asking the news media to leave the room. On Monday, he returned to the same room -- and the same group -- in a more relaxed mood.

"This whole debt-ceiling debate, the size and scope of government, has shown unity between me and tea party folks," Graham said afterward. "If there were any doubts about my fiscal conservatism and my willingness to stand up for common sense, it was the debt- ceiling debate. This was not a very good deal for the country."

Instead of supporting the recent deal struck by Congress and President Barack Obama, Graham backed the Cut, Cap and Balance plan that would have made deeper cuts.

He also called for a balanced- budget amendment, much like South

Carolina's other Republican senator, Jim DeMint, a tea party hero.

Graham opened the meeting with a quiz on the state of the nation's finances, and he called the debt-ceiling deal a missed opportunity.

Fewer than 100 attended Monday's town hall meeting in North Charleston City Hall, and most asked polite, if occasionally pointed, questions.

One man even called Graham's previous support for reforming immigration "reasonable," adding, "I'll bet you half the people in this room crucified you for it."

"Just half?" Graham asked him.

Not that everyone agreed with him.

College of Charleston senior Peter Ruegner questioned Graham on his call for a national biometric ID card that Graham said would stop most illegal immigration.

Ruegner asked if Graham thought the federal government has limited powers. "If they can do that, where does it stop?" he asked.

Another woman who declined to give her name and who told Graham she had "a bazillion questions" she wanted to ask him later said the senator was smart but "so much of what he said is based on a false premise."

Graham noted that some in the audience were libertarians, and while Graham may agree with them on economic issues, he would differ with them on solving illegal immigration or regulating the environment.

"I don't think it's illegal to regulate clean air and clean water," he said. "I just think you need to do it with common sense."

Afterward, Graham said he still is "checking under the hood" to find a GOP presidential candidate he can endorse, one that can appeal to independent voters and conservatives.

He said Obama's record on unemployment, gas prices, debt and health care shows he won't get re-elected based on his job performance. "The way he's going to win is he's going to destroy the Republican nominee," he said.

Graham, who isn't up for re-election until 2014, said he wasn't necessarily surprised that the audience didn't pose any foreign-policy questions, even after the day's news of Gadhafi regime crumbling in Libya.

"We're dealing with the real world here, a lack of job security and people losing their jobs, so it doesn't surprise me that people are focused on the economy," he said.

Graham called the mass movements that led to dictators departing in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya "transformational," likening them "almost akin to the Berlin Wall coming down."

Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771.