COLUMBIA - U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham fended off repeated attacks by the six Republicans who want to replace him in Washington, with most taking the tack he's been in office too long and has drifted from the views of those who elected him.
"It's not personal," said Orangeburg lawyer Bill Connor. "I think you're a good man. But the issue is we need new blood."
Added Lee Bright, "We'd much rather be out supporting you, waving signs for you. But you haven't done the job."
Graham countered: "At the end of the day my job is to represent my state's interest and put my nation ahead of party."
Saturday's hour-long debate, broadcast live statewide on SC ETV, was the first and the last time that all seven of the candidates in the GOP primary will have shared the stage together before Tuesday's vote.
Also taking part in the one-hour debate was Columbia pastor Det Bowers, Upstate businessman Richard Cash, Columbia lawyer Benjamin Dunn, and Charleston public relations businesswoman Nancy Mace.
The group answered questions about immigration, government spending, selecting judges and the influence of the tea party. But most of the answers came back around to the six challengers poking at Graham and his 12-year career in the U.S. Senate.
Cash accused Graham of being too willing to allow undocumented immigrants to get on a path toward citizenship when they first started out as lawbreakers in this country. The "Grahamnesty" label fits, he said.
Graham said the issue of immigration and dealing with the 11 million people here "is not a problem that is going to get fixed by yelling about it."
"You need to control who gets a job," he said of one of the planks he supports in immigration reform. "They're coming here to work. We're not getting overrun by illegal Canadians."
Bright, a state senator from Spartanburg, and Cash both agreed that if you are here illegally "you need to go home."
Mace continued to promote her theme of supporting term limits, saying the Senate seat up this year has been held by only two people during the last 60 years: Graham and Republican Strom Thurmond, who had the seat for 48 years.
"I believe that career politicians are the problem," she said. "They're not the solution."
Graham used the surfacing of Thurmond's name to point out that Thurmond, the grandfather of the GOP in South Carolina, voted about two-dozen times for Supreme Court judges during his career, rejecting only two of them. Some of the other candidates in the race have used Graham's support of President Obama's high court nominees Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomoyer as examples of his willingness to compromise with Democrats and against GOP values.
Bowers, who among the seven candidates has invoked his faith the most often on the campaign trail, said the issue he'd consider most as senator in evaluating a prospective judge for the high court is their stance on abortion.
"A litmus test for Supreme Court justice is the right to life. If we don't uphold that, we've lost our focus."
Dunn, who has been the most infrequently seen of all the candidates on the stump, used his first comments to point out that Graham is out-spending everyone else in the race by a wide margin.
"If you truly are conservative, why is it necessary to spend several million dollars to prove it?" he asked.
Cash also took a shot at Graham and his connection to Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain - his closest ally in Washington.
"You seem to be doing John McCain's bidding," Cash said. "He is your mentor, not Ronald Reagan."
Most all the candidates said they favored reducing the size of government in Washington, pointing to the Department of Education, Department of Energy, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Internal Revenues Service as examples of bureaucracies that could be eliminated outright, or have their budgets greatly reduced.
Graham said he supported efforts to curb spending, but that not all methods of strict spending reforms that some Republicans favor would necessarily mean good things for South Carolina.
"I'd rather lose my job than lose the Port of Charleston," he said of the fights that have surfaced over ways of funding harbor deepening.
The rise of the tea party was also one of the issues that surfaced, with Bright, Connor and Cash all defending the group as something that began from citizen anger over the federal government spending too much, and drifting too far from the U.S. Constitution. Tea party branches from around the state are largely opposed to Graham.
"I call myself a 'God and country' candidate," Cash said. " But I love the tea party" and that he welcomed their support.
Graham said he understood the frustration that tea party voters have with Washington, but said the trouble for Republicans nationwide has been in nominating primary candidates who later were deemed too conservative for voters to accept on election day.
"We've given away four seats over the last four years because we've nominated people who couldn't withstand scrutiny," he said. "If you nominate me that's not going to happen. I'll beat the Democratic candidate's brains out and they know it. They not going to spend 15 cents here."
All said they opposed the Affordable Care Act, otherwise known as Obamacare. But while all the candidates said they would fight to repeal it, Graham said that for all the opposition and rhetoric, the biggest hurdle is Republicans winning back the presidency in two years.
"At the end of the day if you don't have the White House, you're not going to get there," he said.
Reach Schuyler Kropf at 937-5551