Double Trouble

After punching Obama hard, can John McCain and Lindsey Graham shake their rival's hand?

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The pairing benefits them both. McCain, for his part, seems to relish grooming a protégé (though he insists that Graham is more "partner" than disciple). Having Graham by his side may also insulate him from suggestions that he's still embittered by his 2008 loss to Obama. "I have no reason on God's green earth to be angry," McCain insists--so animated that he hops out of his chair and takes a quick lap around his desk for no apparent reason. "It's interesting to me that if I'm critical of a President who's a Republican, well, it's the brave maverick taking on his own party. And then when it's a President of the other party? Ah! It's the angry old man again that's out there, bitter and angry."

For Graham, McCain offers credibility with the party establishment, not to mention a black belt in manhandling the media. Graham might also need McCain's support for his very survival in politics.

Tea Party activists still haven't forgiven Graham for the way he played footsie with Obama early in the President's first term on issues ranging from immigration to climate change to closing the Guantánamo Bay prison camp. Back then, Graham almost seemed to revel in defying his party's base. "Everything I'm doing now ... is completely opposite of where the Tea Party movement's at," Graham told the New York Times in June 2010. He called the movement "just unsustainable" and said, "It will die out." It didn't, of course, and Graham has since backed away from his conciliatory positions.

But many South Carolina Republicans--some of the nation's most conservative voters--haven't forgotten that history. "He's basically a Democrat in Republican clothing," says Michael Brady, a Tea Party activist from Boiling Springs, S.C., who recalls a meeting with Graham early in Obama's first term. "Mr. Graham told us that he wasn't going to listen to the Tea Party, that he would be voting his conscience," Brady says.

Graham has yet to draw a serious primary challenger, though he predicts he will sooner or later. ("Oh, I definitely expect that.") Working with the President on immigration reform--"Grahamnesty," his critics call it--isn't likely to help his chances of running unchallenged. Neither is his recent statement that he could accept a deficit-reduction deal that traded higher tax revenue for cuts to entitlements. Asked about that, McCain grins the way one friend might when the other is in trouble with his spouse. "Lindsey likes to say things that other people won't say," McCain says.

Still, Graham has $4.5 million in his war chest and polls show his approval rating up among South Carolina Republicans. This may be the Benghazi effect. Conservative media have been fixated on the attack as an alleged symbol of Obama's failed foreign policy and Nixonian dishonesty. Hammering at the issue has won Graham and McCain copious airtime on outlets like Fox News. To the delight of conservatives, their successful campaign to torpedo Susan Rice's prospects to become Secretary of State after she relied on some questionable talking points about the attack shook the President's cool. "If Senator McCain and Senator Graham and others want to go after somebody, they should go after me," Obama snapped at a November press conference.

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