MT. PLEASANT, S.C. -- As one of the leading advocates for bipartisan immigration reform, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., had already firmly affixed himself to one cause deeply unpopular with conservatives heading into a re-election year.
Now as a war-weary Congress weighs a military strike in Syria, he finds himself championing another policy that risks antagonizing the base.
Graham is on board for launching targeted missile strikes in Syria to diminish its chemical weapon capacity and assist the rebels who have been stuck in a three-year slog with President Bashar Assad that's resulted in more than 100,000 dead.
Next to Sen. John McCain, there's no more forceful and visible advocate for a muscular response. Graham half-jokes about his ubiquitous appearances on the cable networks to talk foreign policy, but says he's a highly-sought out guest because "I speak with an accent, but without a doubt."
Nonetheless, as he seeks a third term in 2014, Graham appears fully cognizant of the risks of his hawkish posture.
"My problem is I'm trying to explain to the American people why Syria matters while my commander-in-chief is AWOL," he told a gathering of supporters at a creekside restaurant Wednesday morning. "But here's the other dilemma I have: I know it matters. At least in my mind in matters."
In a 45-minute talk here, Graham guided the crowd through the history, stakes and consequences of the strife in Syria. He spoke plain enough to relate but detailed enough to showcase his expertise. The argument is a heavy lift. After all, even Republicans -- by a 12-point margin -- oppose missile strikes, according to this week's Washington Post-ABC poll.
Graham's primary opponents -- a trio of rivals deemed long shots in need of a momentum-shifting event -- are eager to seize the moment. Nancy Mace, the first female to graduate from The Citadel, has said intervention would just bolster the opposition that's dominated by al-Qaida. "I will stand with the people of South Carolina against Obama's failed leadership and against military action in Syria," she told the The Washington Examiner.
State Sen. Lee Bright, R-Spartanburg, known for his inflammatory claims and bombastic bravado, went even further. "John McCain and Lindsey Graham seem willing to go to the ends of the earth to help the Muslim Brotherhood," he zapped.
Graham never engaged his foes directly, but his comments to the largely friendly crowd encapsulated the arduous sell to the public.
"I don't want another Iraq or Afghanistan war because that's just not what we need to do," he said, before outlining his support for a contained military strike designed to degrade Syria's ability to deliver chemical weapons in the future and assist those who want to overthrow President Bashar Assad.
But Graham has heard the counterarguments. He knows many are skeptical that replacing Assad would install leadership that's any more favorable to U.S. interests, even in the military friendly Palmetto State. In fact, a common refrain across the country is that the alternative could be far worse.
"Rebel opposition forces are our sworn enemies. We've spent billions of dollars in one country trying to wipe them off the face of the planet al-Qaida. And yet we employ the strategy of funding them and giving them weapons in Syria to get Assad?" asked Jesse Graston, who traveled nearly three hours from Rock Hill, S.C., and forked over the $12 in order to corner the senator.
Facing that strain of skepticism, Graham wound up his case on Syria intervention by raising the stakes considerably. He painted a frightening picture of cascading world events that would reverberate far beyond the borders of a civil war in one Middle Eastern country.
If the United States doesn't deal with Syria, Graham promised Iran would acquire a nuclear weapon by 2014, the King of Jordan would be deposed and Israel would start preparing to protect itself.