In 2002, Lexington orthodontist and high-ranking GOP official Buddy Witherspoon followed the party line and backed Lindsey Graham for the U.S. Senate seat vacated by Strom Thurmond's retirement.
Today, Witherspoon hopes to limit Graham to one term.
Graham says he is proud of his record, particularly his joining with fellow senator and Republican presidential candidate John McCain to urge changes in President Bush's Iraq policy, which resulted in a troop surge the administration says has lessened the violence there. He also is proud of being one of the most sought-after senators for Sunday talk shows and for his record of reaching across the aisle to try to make progress on veterans' health care and spending issues.
But for Witherspoon — a Republican National Committeeman for more than
11 years —that last part is the rub: the reaching across the aisle.
"He's shifted somewhat off center," Witherspoon said, explaining why he chose to run against Graham in the June 10 GOP primary. "Some people tell me, 'I didn't know we elected the third senator from New York or Massachusetts.' "
Witherspoon also cited Graham's participation as one of the "Gang of 14" that reached a bipartisan compromise over handling judicial nominations. Then, there was Graham's support of Bush's immigration bill — a bill also backed by Democratic senators.
"It sounded like amnesty (for those who have entered the country illegally). It walked like amnesty. We thought it was amnesty," Witherspoon said. "That was another nail in the coffin as far as I'm concerned."
Graham said he is running on his record. "Following Senator Thurmond is a tough act, and I think I've tried to be the best senator I can be as Lindsey Graham. I think I've earned a reputation in Washington as someone you can work with, a valued ally and a worthy opponent."
"The longer you do something, generally speaking, the better you are at it. In year five, I'm a better senator than in year one because I understand the body better. I know where the pressure points are," he added.
Graham said he wants to be re-elected to continue his support for the global war on terror and to work on the most challenging issues of the day, such as entitlement reform and immigration reform.
Witherspoon said he would work on ending frivolous lawsuits, ensuring that trade agreements don't cost American jobs and working on energy, including drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. "We've got to get our house in order. We can't wait forever," he said.
Graham said he also is proud of the work he has done to bolster the Savannah River Site's role in pursuing alternative fuels. While he was disappointed that the nation couldn't find bipartisan ground on Social Security reform or immigration reform, he said he hopes to work on that during the next six years. "We can't expect perfect Republican or Democratic bill to be passed. I'm a realist when it comes to that."
While Witherspoon didn't back a GOP candidate during the state's January presidential primary, Graham was one of McCain's most visible supporters here. "I would work well, as best I can, with whoever becomes president, but I don't have a closer friend in the world than John McCain," Graham said.
Few observers give Witherspoon much of a chance — and not only because Graham has raised more than 10 times as much money and has endorsements from most of the state's most-prominent Republicans.
Clemson political science professor Dave Woodard, who worked on Graham's U.S. House campaigns in the 1990s, said Graham appears to be in the catbird's seat.
"There are some who really don't like him, but by and large, I don't think the majority of GOP primary voters are going to reject a senator who has been as visible and generally successful as he's been," he said.
Witherspoon, who has donated $220,500 to his own bid, said he considers himself an optimistic underdog.
"You would have to call it a David-and-Goliath race, but I've been there and done that before," he said. "I'm very encouraged."
While they might talk about different issues, the paramount choice before state Republicans is whether they want a senator who follows a harder party line.
"As a South Carolina senator, I would reach across the aisle, but I wouldn't give up on my principles," Witherspoon said. "I'm not going to move across the aisle to join with the other side."
Graham said his counsel for Witherspoon is this: "There are 51 Democrats up here, and they're not going to go away."
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