To hammer away at U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham on statewide TV, or not to?

Coming Sunday

The tea party in South Carolina has been gunning for Sen. Lindsey Graham for years, but as the June 10 primary nears, it's becoming clearer its tactics may not pay off. Also, coverage of tonight's Senate debate and capsules of state and local primary races. In News

That is the primary question.

The first and only live debate involving Graham and all six of his fellow Republicans who want to replace him starts at 7 p.m. Saturday and runs for 60 minutes.

It will be aired on South Carolina ETV, coming just three days before Tuesday's Republican primary.

For Graham - as well as his challengers - the stakes remain high. As a two-term incumbent, Graham must prove his 12 years of seniority are worth Republicans voting to send him back.

For his six opponents - all of whom trail greatly in terms of experience, name identification, money and political accomplishment - they must make the case they are a better alternative.

Here are five things to look out for:

1. Ganging up on Graham, might it be risky?

None of the candidates has been shy about pointing out what they see as Graham positions they disagree with, ranging from supporting President Barack Obama's judicial nominees to portraying him as someone they see as representative of the GOP establishment.

But there is a cost to being seen as the debate "attack dog," especially in what, for many, will be the public's first live reading of any of the candidates.

"You might expose what you don't know," College of Charleston political scientist Jeri Cabot said of the risk of taking on an educated insider.

"It's very easy for the incumbent to come back and throw out specifics of a bill or an operation to make you look foolish because you're not aware."

2. Will Graham hold his own?

As a member of the Armed Services, Appropriations, Budget and Judiciary committees, Graham has deep knowledge of where the government, the military and the political process is moving on Capitol Hill.

"He'll be able to trump any one of them in terms of his depth of knowledge about foreign policy, about military matters that nobody in the state knows about, and about efforts that have boosted business in the state of South Carolina," Cabot said.

One alternative angle might be to get Graham to admit to a change of heart in some previous held position or statement that he's made, Cabot said.

3. Who comes off as the most "senatorial?"

Cabot said the candidates have to show voters that they, as individuals, have reached a significant milestone, gained unique experience or shown leadership in some fashion that sets them apart or makes them appear more than a wanna-be U.S. senator.

Instead of dwelling on Graham's performance, she suggested they use their time to talk about themselves, their skills and what they want to change.

4. Will religious beliefs surface?

Evangelicals traditionally make up a large portion of the Republican primary turnout, making up 65 percent of the electorate by some counts during the 2012 Republicans presidential preference primary.

But this is a Senate pick that arguably has not drawn anywhere near the interest of state voters who came out during the competitive presidential season of 21/2 years ago.

During last week's candidate forum sponsored by the conservative Palmetto Family Council, several of the candidates played up their faith-based credentials. Orangeburg attorney and Afghanistan war veteran Bill Connor, for example, pledged to advocate for a "biblical form of government."

5. 7 p.m. on Saturday timing not as bad as it sounds

At first blush, the likelihood of attracting widespread viewership during the 7 p.m. dinner hour doesn't bode well. But in this day of social media - with blogs, Twitter and spin-doctors at the ready - the actual size of the audience that will hear about the debate will be larger than TV numbers alone.

"If you can get the sound bite, the zinger, the flub," Cabot said, "then there will be traction because it will be picked up and recycled" for the news cycles that follow.

But Cabot warned that what a challenger doesn't want to do is be the night's punch line, something that could spell doom on Tuesday and beyond.

"You don't want it to be so outrageous that you end up all over the blogs," she said, "and people are laughing at you."

Reach Schuyler Kropf at 937-5551.