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.
"I believe that if we get Syria wrong, within six months -- and you can quote me on this," Graham said, pausing for dramatic effect. "There will be a war between Iran and Israel over their nuclear program."
But it wouldn't even end there, Graham surmised. Undoubtedly, he said ominously, the Iranians would share its nuclear technology with U.S. enemies.
"My fear is that it won't come to America on top of a missile, it'll come in the belly of a ship in the Charleston or New York harbor," he said.
For Graston, who won't be supporting Graham in the primary, that was a bridge too far.
"It's absolute fear mongering," he said in an interview afterward.
A professed former avid viewer of Fox News and loyal listener of Rush Limbaugh, Graston said the enduring conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan awoke him to the grim reality of the Middle East and perpetual war.
He believes the hawks of the Republican Party shredded their credibility with what they promised to deliver in the country's last two foreign entanglements -- and sees Graham as ignoring the lessons simply for the sake of professing strength.
"All the discussion I saw in Congress is based on the position that Assad has the weapons and did this," Graston said. "They haven't sold the case on that. They have not showed me the evidence. If you want this war, show me the evidence, give me the proof, and they have yet to do that."
David Catanese is the editor of TheRun2016.com