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Lindsey Graham: The senator who revels in the 'ugly' issues

If there's a particularly partisan issue, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina is likely to be in the middle trying to find a solution – in a conservative way. 

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Graham kept moving forward – into the Air Force as a lawyer and then, more than a decade later, into Congress with the backing of South Carolina's political godfather, the late Sen. Strom Thurmond (R). But it was that experience of vulnerability and survival that helped shape how he operates in the Senate today.

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"I think he's realized he needs a lot of people to help him, and people of all different stripes have helped him as he's gone through life," says David Woodard, a political science professor at Clemson University in South Carolina, who ran two of Graham's House campaigns in the 1990s. "I believe he thinks he can talk and work with a lot of people that most people don't think they can work with."

Graham, who is fiercely loyal to his friends, is able to sit down with people ranging from liberal Sen. Chuck Schumer (D) of New York to members of the three local South Carolina Republican committees who expressed no confidence in him in 2009 for not being conservative enough.

Graham remains under fire from some activists on the right, who see him as too willing to compromise on core principles. Even before the 2012 election, groups like the Club for Growth and the Senate Conservatives Fund were open about their interest in finding a candidate to challenge him in 2014.

In that sense, Graham is a test for whether skillful politicians can reach bipartisan compromise and survive. "The rest of the country is looking to see what Lindsey Graham is going to do [on immigration]," says Jeremy Robbins, director of the Partnership for a New American Economy, a group partially funded by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

Mr. Robbins's group and Republicans for Immigration Reform, a new "super political-action committee" dedicated to supporting conservatives who take tough votes on immigration, are running advertisements to counter negative spots aired by critics of Graham in South Carolina.

If he fails? The man whom conservative radio talk-show host Rush Limbaugh once derided as Lindsey "Grahamnesty" – a derisive term for his willingness to support some sort of legal status for illegal immigrants – could lose to a more ideologically pure lawmaker in a primary next year.

And if he succeeds? "If he can become part of [a big compromise] that passes and survive," says Julian Zelizer, a congressional historian at Princeton University, "then I think a lot of Republicans would think twice about their fears about entering this kind of negotiation."

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