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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

2014 marks the first time Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, of South Carolina, has had to run for office since the emergence of the Tea Party. Graham faces a primary with four Republican challengers, who all say he's just not conservative enough.

NPR's Ailsa Chang traveled to South Carolina to check in on what many voters consider a fight for the heart and soul of the state's Republican Party.

AILSA CHANG, BYLINE: Lindsey Graham will point out there's a lot about him that's cookie-cutter South Carolina. He's pro-life, pro-military and pro-guns. He's the proud owner of an AR-15, and says he's been hunting since he was 9 years old.

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM: OK. Now, I'm going to shoot five, and you shoot four. OK?

CHANG: This morning, Graham's treating an audience to a display of his marksmanship. We're at an event in Columbia, S.C., promoting safety locks on guns. Graham has an AR-15 and a handgun. He aims and...

(SOUNDBITE OF GUNFIRE)

CHANG: ...and he nails the paper target's head.

GRAHAM: Not too bad. Yeah, he's pretty well gone.

(LAUGHTER)

CHANG: For some voters in this state, knowing Graham is a gun lover is all they need to know to vote for him again. But for many Republicans, Graham's race for re-election comes down to a broader question: Is he a true South Carolina conservative? When you ask Graham that question, he immediately compares himself to Ronald Reagan.

GRAHAM: I think I represent the traditional way of being a conservative. You know, Ronald Reagan was a pretty conservative guy. Tip O'Neill was a pretty liberal guy. They were able to find common ground to save Social Security from bankruptcy for about 40 years. Somebody's got to take it to the next level. I'd like to be in that mix.

CHANG: Graham says being a conservative doesn't mean you can't work with the other side to get things done. And, he notes, Democrats need Republicans to do the big things. That's why he says he helped broker a bipartisan immigration deal last June that offered illegal immigrants a path to citizenship.

But at a Tea Party convention in Myrtle Beach earlier this week, there were hordes of people who say a true conservative doesn't make deals like that. Here's Keith Tripp, Carol Williamson and Pat Dansbury.

KEITH TRIPP: He is the Democrats' favorite Republican, which should tell you something about him.

CAROL WILLIAMSON: He starts talking the conservative talk, but he doesn't walk the conservative walk.

PAT DANSBURY: He's like the cow that gives you a can of milk, and then kicks it back over again. He does really good things, and then he does really horrific things.

CHANG: Horrific things, they say, beyond that immigration dea - like when he criticized his Republican colleagues when they refused to fund the government unless Congress defunded Obamacare, and when he voted for the big bank bailout bill. And another convention-goer, Steve Hoffman, says he can't get over how Graham voted to confirm Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court.

STEVE HOFFMAN: How could a conservative vote for two progressive, socialist-type Supreme Court nominees? Unheard of.

CHANG: Tea partiers are hoping to force Graham into a run-off this June. In South Carolina, a candidate needs a majority of votes to win the primary, so the goal is to finish second and go head-to-head with Graham two weeks later. Leading the pack of four Republican challengers is Lee Bright, a state senator who's pushed legislation to ban abortion-funding for victims of rape and incest. He also wants to make enforcement of the Affordable Care Act punishable by one year in jail.

STATE SEN. LEE BRIGHT: I would put my conservative record against any legislator in the country. I don't think there's anybody more conservative than I am.

CHANG: And then there's Nancy Mace, who's best known as the first woman to graduate from the Citadel. She also likes to point out she's a small-business owner, and a mother of two.

NANCY MACE SOUTH CAROLINA SENATE CANDIDATE: I'm the only candidate in this race who's never run for office before and I'm proud of it.

CHANG: In this state, it's a foregone conclusion that the Republican nominee will win in November. And right now, polls show Graham is leading his Republican challengers by a wide margin. Longtime political operatives in South Carolina say the two-term senator doesn't really need to sweat this race.

DON FOWLER: The whole thing about the Tea Party being such a grandiose threat to him, I think is misleading.

CHANG: That's Don Fowler, of the University of South Carolina. He was head of the Democratic National Committee during the Clinton administration.

FOWLER: When you just look at the total array of public opinion ideology, Lindsey Graham falls very comfortably within the midpoint of what Republicans think and feel, and that will be reflected in the primary.

CHANG: That is a theory Graham is banking on.

GRAHAM: We've been a state that looks for the entire package. We want people well-grounded in conservative philosophy and ideology, but we seldom elect ideologues.

CHANG: He says he's glad his state is having a conversation about what it means to be a true conservative. It's healthy, but...

GRAHAM: I think I'm going to win, and I'm going to win being me.

CHANG: And he predicts he's going to come out of this election stronger than ever.

Ailsa Chang, NPR News.

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