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Incumbent senator eclipses crowded field in S.C. Republican primary

By Harriet McLeod

CHARLESTON S.C. (Reuters) - U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina looks poised to be the latest member of the Republican establishment to fend off a primary challenge from the Tea Party, overcoming criticism from some members of his party that he is not conservative enough.

Graham's fundraising and poll numbers far outpace his six opponents' in Tuesday's primary election. Analysts say the state's senior senator will likely muster enough votes to win the nomination outright, as incumbents in Texas and Kentucky have.

Gunning to oust him are a small-business owner, a minister, two lawyers, a libertarian state senator who gave away a 9mm handgun at a campaign event and a business owner who was the first female graduate of the Citadel military college. 

But Graham, dogged for his support of immigration reform and willingness to work with Democrats, is a shrewd political veteran who had long planned for an expensive primary battle, supporters say. His $9.4 million war chest as of late May was more than three times all his challengers' money combined, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

That has helped the senator, an outspoken foreign policy hawk seeking his third six-year term, distance himself from the Tea Party candidates battling for control of the Republican party in conservative South Carolina and other states.

"He’s really the only one able to spend and get his name out there statewide," said Gibbs Knotts, a political science professor at the College of Charleston. "It’s an uphill battle for the challengers.”

The conservative Tea Party has suffered a string of high-profile primary losses this year but has a chance to unseat Senator Thad Cochran of Mississippi in a Republican primary race headed for a June 24 run-off.

In South Carolina, a Clemson University poll released this week showed Graham near the 50 percent plus one vote he needs to avoid a run-off.

He drew support from 49 percent of frequent Republican primary voters, far more than the single-digit support given to his competitors. The poll found 35 percent of voters were undecided, with a 6 percent margin of error.

"The collective discontent with Lindsey Graham ... has not coalesced around any one candidate," Clemson political scientist Dave Woodard said in a webcast about the poll.

The winner of the Republican contest is expected to take the seat in November. South Carolina has not elected a Democrat to the Senate since 1998.

In his final primary ads released on Thursday, Graham, 58, touted his record of opposing Obamacare, probing the deadly 2012 attack on a U.S. compound in Benghazi, Libya, and advocating for U.S. troops.

"My job is to ask tough questions, find answers and be that conservative leader you can count on to get things done," he said.

(Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Dan Grebler)

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