HEALTH BILL MCCAIN (copy)

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. (left), and Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., chat on an escalator on Capitol Hill in Washington in February. The two senators have long been friends and collaborators, but the bond is being tested by the so-called Graham-Cassidy bill, which would dismantle the Affordable Care Act by taking money spent under the law and sending it to states in the form of block grants. File/Al Drago/The New York Times

COLUMBIA — Never in all of his 24-year political career has U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham been in higher demand than he was this week.

As the Seneca Republican spearheaded a last-ditch Hail Mary to replace Obamacare, he was in constant communication with the most powerful people in the nation.

President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence checked in with Graham repeatedly to gauge the bill's progress and ask what they could do to help. On Tuesday, Pence invited Graham aboard Air Force Two for strategy meetings during a trip from New York to Washington, D.C., before joining him at a Senate GOP lunch to lobby his colleagues.

In one particularly unusual episode, Graham was on the phone Thursday afternoon with Pence when Trump interrupted. Pence politely hesitated, before Graham put him at ease.

"You should definitely take the president's call," Graham told him, laughing at the extraordinary nature of the situation.

He later said he had never imagined that he would some day get bumped off a call with the vice president by the president. Pence called him back afterwards.

In the middle of a radio interview later that day, Graham received yet another call from the White House. He turned off his phone and said he could ring them back later.

Within a matter of weeks, Graham had gone from receiving a Twitter lashing from Trump, who labeled him a publicity-seeking liar, to the brink of notching the crowning achievement of his political career.

Graham's rapid change of fortune may seem like par for the course in Trump's Washington, where political figures of all stripes have seen their stock rise and fall and rise again at a dizzying pace. But the South Carolina senator's turnaround was particularly striking for the depth of its two extremes. 

And then his best friend spoiled the party.

A lonely start

For months, Graham has advocated relentlessly for a block-grant health care plan designed in partnership with Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-La. — a lonely effort dismissed just weeks ago as a pipe dream that eventually earned the full-throated endorsements of Trump and Pence, as well as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis.

The bill's allies and enemies alike say Graham's political chops have been on full display as he marshaled the proposal from utter obscurity into the center of the country's attention.

"He has almost unsurpassed institutional knowledge," said Josh Kimbrell, the Spartanburg County GOP chairman, who interviewed Graham on his conservative radio talk show Thursday when the senator was still bubbling with optimism. "Whether you love him or hate him, he has a great intuitive sense of where the Senate is in both the Republican and Democratic caucuses."

Even those who hated the bill acknowledged that the process demonstrated Graham's political acumen at its peak.

"It was Lindsey's personality and cleverness that got it this far, and he should be given credit for it," said John Weaver, Ohio Gov. John Kasich's chief strategist, who fervently rallied against the measure.

Graham himself could not help but reveal how gratified he felt to see his pet project get a chance in the limelight.

"It's been fun," Graham said Thursday in Greenville. "I've honestly enjoyed it."

McCain bows out

As he stormed into the final stretch, Graham began taking fire from all directions.

From the left, late-night talk show host Jimmy Kimmell launched an all-out assault on the legislation, accusing Cassidy of lying to him earlier this year when he promised to push for Americans to receive health care regardless of income. Democrats decried the bill as heartless.

From the right, Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., railed against the measure because he argued that leaving Obamacare taxes in place was not sufficiently conservative and would make it harder to fully unravel the law. 

But just when the bill looked like it might have achieved a legitimate chance of passage, the dagger came from Graham's best friend, a man who those close to him say Graham idolizes like a big brother.

On Friday, after days of grumbling, Sen. John McCain announced that he "cannot in good conscience" vote for the bill due to the rushed process his party was orchestrating.

With unified Democratic opposition, Republicans could only afford two defections from their ranks. Paul and Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, were already viewed as certain to vote against the measure. McCain struck the decisive blow.

For Weaver, who worked for McCain before joining Kasich's team, the decision was foretold all along by the speech McCain gave on the Senate floor after he was diagnosed with brain cancer. In those remarks, the Arizona Republican emphasized bipartisanship and regular order, which Graham's process eschewed.

“I never had any doubt,” Weaver said of McCain’s ultimate decision. “But if there was any hesitancy at all, it was because of his heartfelt relationship with Lindsey. I don’t think it was hard to get to ‘no,’ but his fondness for Lindsey made it difficult to say so.”

When Graham and McCain first met decades ago, Weaver was in the room, and he said the two senators have had differences of opinion on policy issues ever since.

“But their friendship supersedes all of that, as friendships are supposed to,” he said. And when Graham turns his focus back to immigration and foreign policy next, “John McCain will be right there with him. There’s no doubt about it.”

Moving forward

Hours before McCain's decision, Kimbrell said Graham was bracing for "one of the most consequential weeks of his political career" — particularly with conservatives, who have not always seen eye to eye with Graham in other areas like immigration.

Graham echoed that sentiment, describing his effort as "the most significant thing I've worked on" in his 22 years in Congress. Aides said they had never seen Graham work harder to push a bill through.

The decision of Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., to introduce a single-payer "Medicare for All" bill played right into Graham's messaging strategy. Though Graham vilifies Obamacare, he has long positioned single-payer as the true foil for his bill and cast the decision facing senators as a binary choice between his plan and "socialism."

When CNN scheduled a prime-time debate for Monday night featuring Graham and Sanders, along with Cassidy and Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., Graham was overjoyed.

But Graham's mission never went quite according to plan. 

In August, Graham made gubernatorial support a centerpiece of his strategy, explaining that he hoped to get 25 governors on board. In the end, he could only muster around 15. Even worse, he could not get his own home-state governor on board until Friday, when South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster backed the effort in a letter to Trump.

Asked Thursday by The Post and Courier whether he wants the Senate to take up the bill even if it means another high-profile defeat, Graham unequivocally said he did.

Even with Friday's crushing setback, Graham continued to look ahead.

"We press on," he said. 

Follow Jamie Lovegrove on Twitter @jslovegrove.

Jamie Lovegrove is a political reporter covering the South Carolina statehouse and congressional delegation. He previously covered Texas politics in Washington for The Dallas Morning News and in Austin for the Texas Tribune.