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McCain finds key ally in S.C.'s Graham

First-term senator's loyalty to Republican candidate has helped strengthen their bond.

By Mark Johnson
mjohnson@charlotteobserver.com

MINNEAPOLIS U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina was mid-sentence in his hotel lobby at the Republican National Convention when Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty rang one of Graham's two cell phones to invite him to dinner.

Well, Graham explained, Sen. Joe Lieberman also wanted to go to dinner. So did former presidential candidate Fred Thompson, Graham said, as did Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman. By the end of the conversation, Graham had worked it out and snapped the phone shut.

“We're all going to have dinner at the governor's mansion,” he said, grinning.

This sort of scenario likely will play out time and again, with stakes much higher than the evening menu, if Republicans succeed in electing John McCain president. Graham is McCain's most trusted political ally. He pre-emptively declared he'll stay in the Senate and undoubtedly would play the lead role in moving McCain's agenda through Congress.

The two are so close that McCain calls two or three times a day, including greeting Graham, 53, with an 8 a.m. call Monday: “‘Hey, boy!'” according to Graham.

“The relationship between those two will be unique in history,” said S.C. Attorney General Henry McMaster.

Graham and McCain have been through political fires together, starting with the S.C. presidential primary in 2000, which McCain lost. Graham stuck by McCain when he advocated a surge in Iraq, an unpopular stance at the time.

“We've taken a common beating at times,” Graham said. “That forged a stronger friendship.”

McCain has said there is no one in politics he trusts more than Graham, and Graham describes his party's nominee as a mentor and friend.

“I've always got his best interests at heart,” said Graham, elected to the U.S. House in 1994 and to the Senate in 2002. “He's allowed me to say and do things that few first-term senators get to.”

Lieberman, a Democrat-turned-Independent, often makes international trips with both men.

“Their friendship goes beyond politics,” Lieberman said. “I'm just privileged to be the third amigo.”

McCain asked to meet with Graham, then a congressman from Seneca, after his prosecutorial role in the impeachment of then-President Clinton in 1998. McCain explained he was considering a run for president and asked for Graham's help. Graham said yes, surprising McCain with an immediate answer.

“I told him, ‘You're the only one who's ever asked me,'” Graham said, “‘and you seem like a good guy.'”

After the loss in South Carolina in 2000, they traveled to global hot spots meeting with troops. McCain is a former Navy fighter pilot, and Graham is a lawyer in the Air Force Reserve.

Last summer, McCain's second presidential campaign tanked. Graham stayed with him. McCain rebounded by the time of this year's S.C. primary, and Graham was with him at every stop.

Sen. Richard Burr, an N.C. Republican, said Graham provides McCain what every candidate needs.

“They need someone who they can pick up the phone and call,” Burr said, “who's not a paid consultant, (to whom) they can say, ‘What do I do?'”

Republicans hope that call will be made from the Oval Office next year.

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