WASHINGTON (CNN) – In the wake of Arlen Specter's defection to the Democratic caucus, Republicans are primed for yet another round of soul-searching and intra-party sniping about the GOP's future. That debate might be best illustrated in South Carolina, where the state's two Republican senators are sharply split on how the party should move forward.
In one corner is Sen. Jim DeMint, perhaps the most conservative member of the upper chamber. In a speech to party activists last fall, DeMint became the first Republican to publicly blast John McCain after he lost the presidential election, accusing the Arizona senator of betraying core GOP principles in his quest for the White House.
In the other corner is Sen. Lindsey Graham, a McCain ally and party maverick who has angered conservatives in his own state and party by working with Democrats on issues like immigration reform. Few Republican insiders in South Carolina would descibe DeMint and Graham as close.
Appearing on CNN Tuesday, DeMint, a hero of the conservative grassroots, denied that his party has tilted too far to the right.
"I don't think many Americans are going to agree that the Republican party has become too conservative," he said. "If you look at our record of spending, our record on every issue, the problem I think we have is Americans no longer believe that we believe what we say we do."
DeMint says he isn't worried. He denied that the GOP has become a southern party, attributing Republican losses in the northeast to some northern voters who have left the region and moved south hoping to avoid labor unions and "forced unionization." He said Americans will eventually come back into the Republican fold because of growing alarm about the size of government and President Obama's fiscal policies.
"I think you'll see this next election to be totally different," DeMint predicted. "Pat Toomey, who is running in Pennsylvania, is one of the most maintream Americans I know."
But Graham said that politicians like Toomey - the former Club for Growth president who was leading Specter in Pennsylvania's Republican Senate primary - are the exact reason the GOP is languishing in places like the Northeast. Although Graham said he agrees ideologically with the Club for Growth "most of the time," he said "the people that they run in primaries wind up losing the general election."
"I've got no desire to help the Democratic party get stronger," Graham said on Fox News Tuesday. "I am a center right conservative Republican who believes that our party has to grow, not shrink."
Graham rejected Republican activists who seek a kind of ideological purity in their candidates, opting instead to heed Ronald Reagan's guidance that someone who agrees with you 80 percent of the time is a friend, not an enemy. Graham noted that Specter helped Republicans usher Supreme Court Justices Roberts and Alito through the confirmation process in 2005.
"I don't agree with Specter a lot, but I am a practical guy," Graham said. "We've got to grow this party ... We need to get people in the party that can carry a fiscally conservative agenca, a center-right agenda, and that means recruiting people that are different than me, quite frankly."