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Friends and colleagues are puzzled by his unexpected conversion, and some speculate that hes angling for an administration post

Facing a skeptical audience at a theatre in downtown Washington, Senator Lindsey Graham embraced the role of pantomime villain in the ongoing saga of Brett Kavanaughs nomination to the supreme court.

Im the first person to say, I want to hear from Dr Ford, he said, referring to the woman who testified to the Senate about allegations that Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her. I thought she was handled respectfully. I thought Kavanaugh was treated like crap.

The packed auditorium at the Atlantic magazines annual festival filled with boos and heckles. Graham snapped back dismissively: Yeah, well, boo yourself.

Some members of the audience walked out in disgust. But the South Carolina senator was reveling in being the centre of attention. He was also displaying his new, unexpected conversion from ardent critic of Donald Trump to one of the presidents most ferocious attack dogs.

It is a role that has pushed Graham into new national prominence, putting him squarely in the middle of the national confrontation between the #MeToo movement and the populist backlash of male victimisation and righteous indignation.

His battle cry: I know Im a single white man from South Carolina and Ive been told to shut up but I will not shut up.

But friends, acquaintances and colleagues are puzzled. Michael Steele, former chairman of the Republican National Committee, said: I think a lot of people in this town who know Lindsey are scratching their heads and saying, Thats not the Lindsey Graham whos always been an honest broker. If Lindseys honest, he would not perform the way hes been performing on behalf of Trump.

Graham, 63, has long been one of the most colorful characters in the Senate, long parodied by TV satirist Jon Stewart as a southern belle like Tennessee Williams Blanche DuBois. He served in the US air force in various capacities for more than three decades. In 2015, he acknowledged he had never sent an email.

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Graham launched his political career in the South Carolina legislature in 1992 before winning an open House seat in 1994. He emerged as a key figure in the attempt to impeach President Bill Clinton. He also became known for hawkish views on foreign policy andfor working across the aisle with Democrats.

Graham ran for president in 2016 but was crushed in the Republican primary. During that campaign, he dismissed Trump as a jackass, a race-baiting bigot and the most flawed nominee in the history of the Republican party.

So his performance at last weeks Senate judiciary committee hearing over Dr Christine Blasey Fords allegations of sexual assault against Kavanaugh, seemed wildly out of character. Just as Republicans resolve appeared to be faltering, Graham delivered a fire and brimstone blast If you vote no, youre legitimising the most despicable thing I have seen in my time in politics that thrilled the White House and conservative base and simultaneously destroyed any lingering hopes of bipartisan comity.

Steele reflected: That sycophantic performance was all for Trump because there was really no basis for him to go off the way he did, to show the kind of immature behavior in a setting like that, given the seriousness of the conversation.

The Atlantic editor, Jeffrey Goldberg, put this directly to Graham at Wednesdays event. I think youre cheapening me and thats fine, I dont really care, the senator replied defiantly. Youre suggesting that the reason I got mad was for some political play.

Graham pointed out he had voted to confirm Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan, both nominated to the supreme court by a Democratic president, and claimed a double standard. So heres the game here: when Im voting for two female nominees, nominated by the Democrat, Im the smartest frigging guy in town. Im the epitome of what a good Republican would be like. When I defend somebody Ive known for 20 years against complete character assassination, all the sudden its about Lindsey.

Indeed, in recent days Graham has continued to be Kavanaughs stoutest champion, even suggesting that if he is voted down, Trump should simply renominate him. His efforts have not gone unnoticed. The president told reporters on Tuesday: Lindsey is a friend of mine at least for the last six months, as you know. And hes done, really, a great thing and a great service for our country.

Only two years ago Graham was lambasting Trump. In 2017 he warned there would be holy hell to pay if the president fired the attorney general, Jeff Sessions. Yet by August this year and after several rounds of golf together – he had done a U-turn, suggesting Trump deserved an attorney general in whom he has confidence.

What happened? Steele said: You only go from This guy is a danger to our nation and bad news to Oh my God hes the best thing since sliced bread, let me play golf with him, only if you want something or you expect something. I cant explain it. Only he can explain it.

When Lindsey Graham ran for president in 2016, he described Donald Trump as a jackass, a race-baiting bigot and the most flawed nominee in the history of the Republican party. Photograph: Brian Frank/Reuters

Grahams full-throated embrace of Trumpism appears to have accelerated since the death in August of his great friend, Senator John McCain, an arch foe of the president both politically and personally. McCain continued to denounce Trump until the end but his death has left a void, and the anti-Trump resistance in the Republican party is shrinking fast. Senator Ted Cruz, who also clashed bitterly with Trump during the election, has also thrown in his lot with the president.

Henry Olsen, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center thinktank in Washington, said: Lindsey Graham has probably looked around and seen Jeff Flake leaving the Senate, Bob Corker leaving the Senate and Ben Sasse under siege and thought theres not much mileage in being a Trump critic.

Some observers speculate that Graham is worried about a populist challenger in the next South Carolina primary (in 2014, he won with 56%). Others suggest that he is eyeing a job in the Trump administration. Media reports have suggested that Sessions, much derided by Trump, and Jim Mattis, the defence secretary, might be gone with the next year. Graham could be a contender for either position.

Olsen added: If there is a job in the administration hes angling for, its defence secretary. I have a pretty strong impression Jim Mattis is going to be asked to leave. Lindsey Graham would be happy to close out his career with that.

Kurt Bardella, a political columnist who switched allegiance from the Republican to the Democratic party, disagreed. Lindsey Graham is auditioning to be the next attorney general of the United States, he said.

Bill Galston, a former policy adviser to President Clinton, said he first became acquainted with Graham during the impeachment process. There are many Lindsey Grahams, he said. Ive been puzzled by his trajectory during the Trump administration. I have no explanation. In person hes decent, moderate and humorous, but these attributes were not on display last week.

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President says Pat Toomey, a Republican facing a tough re-election bid, is trying to have it both ways on Trump by refusing to tell voters where he stands

Barack Obama rebuked Senator Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania on Saturday, criticising the Republican for using his words in a campaign ad and for lacking the political courage to stand up to Donald Trump.

Obama issued a statement in response to a Toomey television ad that showed the president outside the White House, thanking the senator for his courage in backing a gun control reform bill, which ultimately failed, in 2013.

Real courage, Obama said, lay in telling voters where you stand on the tough issues, and that Toomey had failed to show it by refusing to say whether he would vote for Trump, the Republican presidential nominee.

Courage is telling Pennsylvania voters where you stand on the tough issues, not just the easy ones like background checks, Obama said. Pat Toomey wont tell Pennsylvania voters where he stands on Donald Trump, trying instead to have it both ways by telling different people what he thinks they want to hear. Thats not courage.

In May, Toomey said he was absolutely in the never Hillary Clinton camp, and has been a consistent and energetic opponent of Obamas legislative agenda, from healthcare to immigration reform.

He faces a difficult re-election, needing to win to moderate voters of suburban Philadelphia, where people have largely rejected Trump. On Saturday, a Morning Call poll put Toomey up just 43% to 42% against the Democrat, Katie McGinty, in a race that could be key to deciding control of the Senate.

Obama also admonished Toomey for his role in the current impasse over his supreme court nominee, Merrick Garland, saying: Voting to shut down the government and against bills to close the terrorist gun loophole isnt courage. And playing politics with the supreme court isnt courage.

The same Morning Call poll put Trump six points behind Hillary Clinton in Pennsylvania, one of the states he would probably need to win the White House on Tuesday. Both candidates are due back in the state for rallies before the vote.

Trump is primed to have a very good night in many parts of the state, Chris Borick, director of the Muhlenberg College Institute of Public Opinion, wrote in an analysis of the Morning Call poll. But one area where he needs a very good night is the one that remains the most troubling, and thats the Philadelphia suburbs.

Borick said Toomeys ad was well-targeted at such moderate suburban voters. Both Toomey and McGinty courted those voters in campaign events on Saturday.

Lauren Passalacqua, a spokeswoman for the Democratic senatorial campaign committee, told the Associated Press on Friday that if Toomey respected Pennsylvanians or the truth at all, hed take the ad down.

At a campaign event in Philadelphia last month, McGinty, who worked for Vice-President Al Gore during Bill Clintons administration, similarly derided her opponent.

It is long past due for any profile in courage from Pat Toomey, she said, noting that he had wavered on Trump even while the nominee had insulted prisoners of war, a Gold Star family and women. Its nothing short of despicable for Pat Toomey not to stand up right now, today, to Donald Trump and make clear that he is not fit to be president of the United States, she said.

Democrats attempts to tie Republican candidates to Trump have not met with universal success. In Florida, the former presidential candidate Marco Rubio maintains a healthy polling lead over Patrick Murphy, who made close to 20 mentions of Trump during the last senatorial debate.

Republicans control the Senate by 54 seats to 46, and should Clinton win the presidency, Democrats will need only to pick up four seats to take the chamber back, through the casting vote of the vice-president.

This scenario would give the Democratic party technical control of supreme court appointments, a possibility which has driven many Republican moderates to support Trump. Democrats would need 60 votes, however, to overcome a filibuster and hold a confirmation vote.

At an event with Trumps running mate, Mike Pence, in Wisconsin on Saturday, the House speaker, Paul Ryan, said he had voted early for Trump, because it is time to come home and go out and vote.

Ryan struggled over whether to endorse Trump and last month told congressional Republicans he would no longer campaign for or with the candidate. On Saturday, he said concerns over free speech, gun rights and healthcare had informed his decision.

When Donald Trump says that he wants a special session to repeal and replace Obamacare, let me tell you as speaker of the House we are ready, we are willing and we have a plan to do that, he said. But that only happens if we win this election.

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After two House terms, the Democrat and war veteran is looking to win a Senate seat from the Republicans. On the trail in Illinois she talks about her double amputation, living on food stamps and why shes not worried about GOP attacks

When Congresswoman Tammy Duckworth stands in front of crowds despite the fact that doing so is painful she does so on two titanium legs, her feet encased in ladylike flats.

When she sits in her wheelchair, you can see that one prosthetics socket has a camouflage print, and the other an American flag.

Duckworth could probably use her congressional health insurance to pay for the most state-of-the-art cosmetic prostheses for the two legs she lost in combat during the Iraq war. But like the men and women who preceded her, surrounded her and succeeded her in recuperating from combat-related injuries at the Walter Reed military hospital in Washington DC, she uses the frequently criticized and sometimes woefully inadequate veterans healthcare system.

Im glad that people know my military service, Representative Tammy Duckworth told the Guardian over a paper plate of barbecued rib tips. But, like this nation, we are more than our military. And the rest of our story is the same as the rest of my story.

Tammy Duckworth at a campaign event in Danville, Illinois, last weekend. Photograph: Kristen Norman for the Guardian

Duckworths late lunch came in Danville, Illinois, at the end of her third campaign stop of the day on what she called a southern swing through the state.

After almost four years in the House, she is running this time for a seat in the Senate against Republican Mark Kirk, and is favored to win the race FiveThirtyEight called Illinois one of the two most likely [Senate] seats to flip this year. .

Many voters already know the most visible part of her story, which she also told on the final night of the Democratic national convention before Hillary Clinton accepted her nomination. While working on her PhD, Duckworth was called up from the reserves during the Iraq war and, though technically women werent yet allowed in combat, was piloting a helicopter that was shot down. She was severely injured and became the first female double amputee of the war.

During a stop at the Pilgrim Missionary Baptist Church, a majority African American church in Champaign, after she shook hands before services began and swayed to the music of the gospel choir, she talked to the congregation about that day in 2004.

We got hit by a grenade, a rocket propelled grenade, blew up in my face. I made the call, Weve been hit, but we were flying just north of the Euphrates river, over big palm trees, far as you can see, she explained. I said, Oh, God, I need a place to land. And, like a miracle, an opening opened up, in the middle of a big palm grove. It shouldnt have been there. But it was there. It was just large enough for us to land our aircraft.

As I lay bleeding, waiting to be rescued, the lowest person on my aircraft, the youngest, lowest ranking kid from Peoria a Specialist, E4, my rear gunner stood and protected us while a sergeant, the next lowest ranking person, came and carried me to safety. And I woke up 11 days later but I woke up.

Duckworth lost both her legs in the attack, and nearly lost her right arm except, as she explained it, for two twists of fate (or, as she prefers, gifts from God): The only vascular surgeon in the entire Middle Eastern theatre happened to be on a three-day rotation in Baghdad ER the day she was shot down. It took 13 hours of surgery and, quite literally, an 11th-hour blood donation from four members of her unit with the same blood type to save her arm.

Tammy Duckworth, while serving with the Illinois Army National Guard, sitting in a helicopter during her tour of duty in Iraq. Photograph: AP

I get up every single day trying to repay a debt that I can never repay. Never. And I will work hard. Because I dont know why I was saved. I dont know, she said.

But before that day in Iraq, Duckworth said that there were other earthly angels whose help saved her during one of the other most difficult times in her life: her familys descent from the middle class and into poverty.

My daddy had lost his job when I was in middle school and, by the time I was in high school, four years later, we had gone through everything and we were down to our last $10, she told Pilgrim Missionary attendees.

For many Americans after the Great Recession, Duckworths is probably too familiar a story. In Champaign, where she was speaking, unemployment remains higher than the national average and they are still losing manufacturing jobs, just like they were in the early 1980s (when it first hit 9%).

Back then, Duckworths family ended up living in a pay-by-the-week motel room and came to rely on food stamps, which her parents struggled to make last the month. I remember to this day at the grocery store, we would go and count out the last five brown $1 food stamps I still remember the color, she said, to murmurs of recognition from some of the older members of the congregation. Wed use the food stamps we had for baloney and some white bread, praying it would last the week, until Monday next week.

But, she said, her high school English teacher helped fill in the gaps for her and for others at her high school, where 60% of students were on some sort of public assistance. He would keep a bunch of us kids after school long enough that hed say, Aw, kids, Im so sorry that I kept you extra, for extra work. Heres 10 bucks, go to Taco Bell, two for 99 cents, get something to eat before you go home That public school teacher, reached into his public school teachers salary pocket, and he fed us.

Tammy Duckworth talks with Dixie Payne, Carolyn Hixon and Gwen Frattick in Danville on Sunday. Photograph: Kristen Norman for the Guardian

And Id bring one of my tacos home to my daddy, and I would lie to him and say Oh, Daddy, I wasnt hungry. I only ate one because I knew he wouldnt eat, she added. And to see the look on my daddys face, this man who was a veteran of three wars, although he was in France for the Korean war, who had served his country for 20 years, who came from a family that served this nation in uniform going back to the revolution I am a daughter of the American Revolution on my daddys side for him to have to accept the lie of his daughter so he could eat that one taco, and so we could keep on going.

The story of her upbringing, and of her father brought low by a late-in-life layoff, was one to which she returned at the Vermilion County Young Democrats rally later that day in Danville, which was organized to help promote local charities from diaper donations to a rape crisis center, and from a food bank to a local domestic violence shelter impacted by state budget cuts.

I grew up a daughter of a United States Marine, a daughter of a man so proud to be an American she told the crowd. But then, when he was in his 50s, my dad lost his job, like so many wonderful families across this great state right now.

And no one would hire him because they said he was overqualified and had too much experience, she added, waving her cane for emphasis. But you know what those are code words for, right? Youre too old. Heads, some of them grey, nodded from benches set up under the trees.

Tammy Duckworth takes a photo with students at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign campus. Photograph: Kristen Norman for the Guardian

Later, over the rib tips, she explained why her background both the poverty she experienced as a teenager, and then paying her way through college with grants, student loans and part-time jobs before joining the military resonates with her would-be constituents. Thats a different between Mark Kirk and myself, she said. Hes been 10 years as a chief of staff, 10 years as a congressman, six years as a senator, so, hes a symbol for people whove lost touch with the state. He doesnt travel the state, hes not gone anywhere in Illinois, if he does, he cancels events and then does one thing and leaves.

I think when we talk about people who need a little extra help, I talk with folks about the fact that were all one bad accident, one bad diagnosis away from potential bankruptcy, she added. The wheelchair and the prosthesis give me a soapbox to stand on. If it helps me get my message across, Im glad, then we need to talk about what we need to do for this country.

The economic anxiety into which the Republican presidential nominee, Donald Trump, is said to have tapped is real in Illinois, explained Duckworth but his solutions are wrong. As I traveled the state, I was in Granite City, Illinois, our steelworkers were laid off two days after Christmas, she noted. Here in Danville, people hear of an economic recovery, but theyre not feeling it. (The unemployment rate was 7.1% in June.) In Bloomington, Illinois, we lost a Mitsubishi factory, after they took a decade of tax credits and tax holidays. When [the credits] ran out, they left: 2,000 jobs there. Peoria: Caterpillar is building a factory in Malaysia.

I understand the challenges theyre facing, because Ive faced them myself.

Then, a man walked up and interrupted Duckworth the second of three former military men who asked for a minute of her time in Danville. I just want to say from an army veteran

Hooah, Duckworth said, an expression of mutual recognition among members of the US army (which is distinct from the Marine Corps Oo-rah).

Hooah he replied. Great speech.

Thank you, whatd you do in the army? she asked, as she asked every military man who spoke to her over the course of her day of campaigning.

Infantry, he said.

Alright, I love grunts.

Eleven bang bang, he said, a reference to the derogatory term for infantry men.

Gotta have someone who jumps out of my helicopter, she said.

Thats right.

Good to see you, man.

Good to see you, he replied, and walked off.

Tammy Duckworth greets parishioners at the Pilgrim Missionary Baptist Church in Champaign, Illinois. Photograph: Kristen Norman for the Guardian

She returned to the point she was making. I lived the challenges that theyre going through, and I get it on a very deeply personal level, she continued. I know what its like to have to rely on food stamps. I know what its like to have student loan debt, because I still have student loan debt. I know what its like to wait for an appointment at the VA, and I choose that.

I get what theyre going through because Ive lived it, or Im living it, she added And so I think that allows them to understand better what motivates me and what Im going to do for them. If youre out of touch, and youre not going to small events like this as a senator and youre not putting the miles on the car, then you dont hear from people who are struggling, who are hurting, who have hopes and who have dreams.

While she spoke, from the other side of the parking lot, a tracker with the conservative America Rising Pac, positioned himself to get a shot of the congresswoman eating. The tracker is filming me eating barbecue, she grumbled. So you know thats going to be on a commercial somewhere, me with, like, a piece of barbecue in my mouth.

America Rising is not the only conservative group gunning for Duckworth: the Independent Voice for Illinois Super Pac, which gets money from a variety of conservatives in and out of the state, began airing television ads in July attacking Duckworth for her positions on refugee resettlement and the Iran nuclear deal.

And though conservatives have long gone after Democratic veterans on the basis of their foreign policy positions and questioned their patriotism, Duckworth said to bring it on.

Do the attacks come? Yes, they do, she said. These legs are titanium. They dont buckle. Go ahead, take a shot at me. Theres nothing you can do to me now that will ever be as bad as that day in Iraq. Im tough enough for it. I am.

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