COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham's six Republican primary challengers frequently and loudly question whether he's conservative enough. But, in a deeply religious state, they haven't questioned his faith.
Graham's opponents have made some aspect of their faith part of their campaigns. But Graham hasn't made it part of his pitch to voters. Nationwide, many Republicans this year have not tied their conservatism to Christianity. In Mississippi, Sen. Thad Cochran has been fending off a tea party-backed challenger attacking his conservative credentials, while Rep. Jack Kingston and former Dollar General CEO David Perdue have locked horns over economic issues in Georgia's U.S. Senate race.
Some of that hinges on making sure Democrats don't get any ammunition since Graham's seat is a virtual lock for Republicans. A Democrat can't attack his GOP opponent for not being conservative enough, but character attacks can transcend party lines, said College of Charleston political scientist Gibbs Knotts.
"To make more personal accusations, that's a difficult thing and they can stick harder. Also, those strategies are a lot harder to make work. And the last thing Republicans want to do is hand a solid seat back to Democrats," Knotts said.
While Graham's faith isn't part of his stump speech, he said it is a vital part of his life. He said he would have never been able to deal with the deaths of his mother and father within 18 months of each other when he was in college without believing in God, and he tries to lead the country with a kind heart consistent with his Christian faith. But while he is a member of a Baptist church in Seneca, he also said politics and religion don't mix well.
"The one thing I personally don't like is when a politician gets too preachy," Graham recently said outside a Columbia forum sponsored by Palmetto Family, a group whose goal is to influence issues through biblical principles.
Many of Graham's opponents in Tuesday's primary have no problem trumpeting their religious beliefs. Det Bowers talks about how he quit a six-figure job as a lawyer to become a preacher. Businessman Richard Cash runs commercials simulating him getting a mug shot and telling voters he has been arrested 10 times in peaceful protests outside abortion clinics. State Sen. Lee Bright is a board member of the Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. All six candidates tout marriages and have photos of them with their spouses and children on their websites.
In earlier campaigns, opponents and their surrogates have made a big deal of the fact the 58-year-old senator has never married. Graham's opponents don't mention that much this campaign. And even at places where faith would be expected to be a big deal, the issue hasn't come to the front. At the Palmetto Family event, candidates were questioned individually for 10 minutes. Almost all the questions were policy-related except the first one, given in advance to the candidates, asking what they would do to help families in the state.
Almost all of Graham's challengers spoke about how the country needed to stop gay marriage and took a swipe at Graham for being one of the few Republicans to vote to confirm President Barack Obama's choices for the U.S. Supreme Court, Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor, both considered liberal justices.
In his answer, Graham said divorce and domestic violence are the biggest problems facing families. He asked audience members to give to shelters and said improving the economy will help alleviate financial pressures that can lead to marriages breaking up.
Graham is a heavy favorite to win his race Tuesday and needs 50 percent plus one vote to avoid a runoff later in June. His campaign said he has raised more than $12 million since his last race in 2008, while none of his opponents has raised more than $1 million.
This is the first time Graham has had to fend off conservative attackers; he faced no primary opposition in 2002 and only nominal challengers in 2008. Ahead of the primary, he appeared to head off any questions about his faith and morals, pushing a bill banning abortions after 20 weeks.
Graham has instead fended off questions about his willingness to work with Democrats, with one of the few questions about his faith coming at the Palmetto Family forum. "We live in a very diverse country. The First Amendment allows us to worship God on our terms or not at all," Graham said to a reporter after he spoke at the forum. "I am a United States senator. There is a time and place for everything. I unashamedly accept Jesus Christ as my Lord and savior. But I represent the entire state."