By Mary Orndorff Troyan, Gannett Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON - On Syria, Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham is both a friend and a foe of the White House.
When Graham says that allowing Syria to go unpunished for using chemical weapons would invite nuclear Armageddon, he aligns himself with President Barack Obama's call for military action.
But when he blames Obama for allowing Syrian President Bashar Assad to remain in power so long, he becomes one of the president's fiercest critics.
During the last week, Graham has made both points in the same speeches, sometimes even in the same breath.
"Barack Obama has emboldened our enemies and scared the hell out of our friends," Graham said Tuesday on a talk radio show in Charleston. "But I don't think it's war-mongering to suggest that the chemical weapons used against the Syrians could be used against us."
On Monday, Graham was outside the West Wing of the White House advising Obama on how to convince Americans the U.S. military should strike Syria. On Tuesday, he called Obama a weak commander-in-chief.
So it goes for a hawkish Republican whose three 2014 primary challengers are determined to stir up a conservative base that's already uneasy about Graham and deeply distrustful of Obama.
"This particular issue is not helping with his GOP base and he knows that," said Dave Woodard, a political science professor at Clemson University and a Republican who has advised Graham and former GOP Sen. Jim DeMint in the past.
Graham's three primary challengers oppose military action in Syria, and many of the state's Republican congressmen plan to vote against authorizing the use of military force, in part because their constituents are so strongly opposed.
So Graham navigates the Syria issue with a dual message: protect the U.S. and its allies by making it harder for dangerous weapons to fall into the hands of people willing to use them, and blame Obama for not being more forceful before now.
"Syria is a cancer that's growing in the region," Graham said earlier this week. "And for two years, the president has allowed this to become, quite frankly, a debacle. And when it comes to selling the American people on what we should do in Syria, given the indifference and quite frankly contradictions, it is going to be a tough sell. But it is not too late."
Political observers say Graham is walking a fine line.
"He's been calling, along with John McCain, for military action in Syria for a long time now, and as the saying goes, the dog has caught the car. What do you do with the car?" said Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia.
Graham's partnership with McCain, the Republican senator from Arizona, on Syria - the two met with Obama on Labor Day at the White House and spoke with reporters afterward - is not an asset in South Carolina GOP politics either, Sabato said.
"The right wing doesn't like either one of them," Sabato said of McCain and Graham.
Woodard said the images of Graham counseling Obama at the White House are resonating with South Carolina Republicans more than his criticisms of the president.
"The message is getting through not that he thinks the president is weak on foreign policy. What is getting through is that he is supporting the president where others are not," Woodard said.
Graham's three primary challengers say the two-term senator is losing touch with his constituents.
"There is not an imminent threat to the U.S. in any way shape or form," Richard Cash, a Powdersville businessman, said in a Thursday interview. "What Sen. Graham is talking about is a preventive war, or going to war now for something that might happen in the future, and I don't think Americans are willing to take up that argument."
State Sen. Lee Bright from Roebuck says the civil war in Syria is not an American concern.
"If we start interjecting in every conflict, we become more of an empire and less of a republic," Bright said Thursday.
Nancy Mace, a public affairs consultant from Charleston, called Graham an advocate for Obama's "failed foreign policy."
"I find no compelling national security reason to engage our military in Syria," Mace said in a prepared statement.
But for all the conservative angst, Graham is still favored to win a third term.
"I don't think he has the kind of challengers who can scare an incumbent who has been in Washington for 20 years," Woodard said. "But given the volatility of the electorate . . . strange things can happen and have happened in South Carolina."