When Senator Lindsey Graham joined forces last month with Senator John Kerry on a compromise to the climate change legislation known as cap and trade, it was the last straw for the Charleston County Republican Party.
The county party, which has traditionally been considered moderate, voted by a wide margin to censure Mr. Graham in harsh terms.
Their grievance list was long: it cited the senator for calling opponents of immigration law change “bigots,” holding the Republican Party “hostage” by participating in bipartisan maneuvers, voting for the Wall Street bailout and tarnishing the ideals of freedom.
It even criticized Mr. Graham, a Republican and the state’s senior senator, as having “stated on many occasions that his primary concern is to ‘be relevant.’ ”
The party had no such criticism for the other senator from South Carolina, Jim DeMint.
In fact, Mr. DeMint, a Republican in his first term, is the leader of a movement to pull the party in the opposite direction from Mr. Graham’s conciliatory approach. The political action committee he founded, called the Senate Conservatives Fund, backs only candidates who are rock-solid conservatives, and adherents to his views have led the efforts to censure Mr. Graham.
The two senators say they are friends whose differences are exaggerated by the news media, and Mr. DeMint has not personally criticized Mr. Graham or called for his censure.
But their contrasting strategies have brought home to South Carolina the struggle over the future of the Republican Party and have put them on opposite sides of important Senate primaries in states like Florida, where Mr. DeMint supports a vocal conservative, Marco Rubio, and Mr. Graham supports Gov. Charlie Crist.
In California, Mr. DeMint supports Chuck DeVore, in defiance of the national party leadership and Mr. Graham, who said he would campaign for Carly Fiorina.
Here in South Carolina, Mr. Graham’s vote to confirm Justice Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court, among other positions, has cost him the support of many conservatives, as have his comments that voters want politicians to reach across the aisle and that Republicans need to do a better job of attracting younger voters and minorities.
After the Charleston party vote, Mr. Graham narrowly averted censure in neighboring Berkeley County by promising to meet with party leaders. In the north part of the state, the York County Republican Party stopped short of a censure but made its displeasure with Mr. Graham known by approving a resolution strenuously opposing cap and trade.
“I believe in the Constitution 100 percent — Mr. Graham does not,” Terry Hutchinson, an auto mechanic in Rock Hill, said before attending the York County meeting. “He voted for Sotomayor, that’s the first thing. She is a liberal, she is a racist, and you support her? Wrong, absolutely wrong.”
The voting records of Mr. Graham and Mr. DeMint are actually not that far apart — according to the American Conservative Union, which gives Mr. Graham a lifetime rating of 90 out of 100, he voted with Mr. DeMint on bellwether issues 80 percent of the time in 2008. Mr. DeMint is the only senator the group designates as a “Defender of Liberty,” its highest accolade.
Instead, the two men diverge on their vision of the party’s future. Mr. DeMint, who declined an interview for this article after several requests, has said he would prefer having fewer, but ideologically pure, Republicans in the Senate rather than more Republicans who were ideologically suspect.
Mr. Graham takes the more pragmatic view, countering in an interview that neither he nor Mr. DeMint would be electable in states like Maine or California, but that a single centrist Republican senator from a moderate state could give the party enough votes to block President Obama’s major initiatives.
“If we had one more vote, one more Republican, this health care debate would be over,” Mr. Graham said.
Mr. DeMint, a favorite of the tea party movement, a diffuse grass-roots group that taps into antigovernment sentiments, attracted widespread attention when he referred to health care legislation as Mr. Obama’s Waterloo, while Mr. Graham was one of 12 senators to join a yet-unsuccessful effort at a bipartisan health care compromise.
Mr. Graham has a history of bucking partisan expectations. As a House member, he signed on to Senator John McCain’s presidential bid, giving Mr. McCain a lift in the South Carolina Republican primary in 2000 when many in the party and the state supported George W. Bush. In 2005, he was a member of the bipartisan “Gang of 14,” which preserved the minority party’s right to block presidential appointments by filibuster but also cleared the way for the confirmation of several conservative judges.
Political analysts in the state say it is difficult to tell how much the anger of the right will hurt Mr. Graham, who does not face re-election until 2014.
“A lot of these stories that make it look like Lindsey Graham is on the ropes I don’t think are fully accurate,” said Scott H. Huffmon, an associate professor of political science at Winthrop University in Rock Hill. Though Mr. Graham may be under attack by louder members of the party, Mr. Huffmon said, in general Republicans like him.
His popularity helped him survive a 2007 censure by the Greenville County Republicans for his support of immigration changes. He won the 2008 primary statewide with 67 percent of the vote and the general election by a 15-point margin. Mr. Graham won Charleston County in 2008, while in 2004, Mr. DeMint lost there.
But here, perhaps even more than elsewhere, politics has become much more polarized as conservative anxiety has taken root under Mr. Obama. In a different climate, said John Graham Altman, a former Republican state lawmaker, Mr. Graham’s negotiation with Mr. Kerry, the Democratic presidential nominee in 2004, over the cap-and-trade bill might have been viewed very differently.
“It could have been, ‘Oh, look at Lindsey, he’s pulling one over on Kerry, he’s got the Brahmin by the big toe,’ ” Mr. Altman said.
Still, some two dozen people interviewed around the state said they had only a vague notion, if any, of displeasure with Mr. Graham. John Dorn, a restaurant supplier and a Republican in Charleston, said the party needed more like him.
“He’s probably as close to being a senator who tries to look at things from other angles as we have,” Mr. Dorn said.
Independent voters like those in the tea party movement, are turned off by such “mushy” Republicans, said J. Warren Sloane, the vice chairman of the Charleston party, who wrote the censure resolution.
“Lindsey Graham paints himself as a martyr who is going against what his constituents feel because he knows what’s best for the country,” Mr. Sloane said. “We’re a little bit tired of the martyr shtick.”
Others say that catering to the angry fringe will only keep the party small.
“In all candor, being a Republican who is primarily working in African-American and Hispanic areas, Lindsey Graham makes it easier for me to be a Republican in those demographics,” said Marvin D. Rogers, 33, a staunchly conservative black Republican in Rock Hill.
“I’m not asking anyone to be any less conservative — please don’t,” Mr. Rogers said. “But be more civil in communicating that conservative message. Don’t get on TV talking about ‘The president’s a racist.’ Don’t get on the radio talking about Waterloos.”