Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., speaks during a Capitol Hill news...

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., speaks during a Capitol Hill news conference in Washington about the investigation of the deadly Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi. (Dec. 21, 2012) Credit: AP

The Republicans are coming! The Republicans are coming!

I spent this weekend in South Carolina, where there is practically always a Republican presidential hopeful wandering around. By the summer before the summer before an election, they are everywhere: standing by the sweet tea urn offering refills, speaking at Rotary Club luncheons, fending off rabbits bent on attacking your garden.

They swarm because South Carolina is the earliest Republican primary that's generally believed, unlike the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary, to reflect the mood of mainstream Republicans. Until former Speaker Newt Gingrich won in 2012, no Republican had ever carried the South Carolina primary and failed to earn the nomination.

The fascinating question this time around is whether the chaos of the 2012 race, which saw fringe Republicans from Michele Bachmann to Herman Cain take turns as the leader in the polls, will be repeated. So far, the answer is, "Retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson won the Southern Republican Leadership Conference straw poll Saturday."

South Carolina's own Sen. Lindsey Graham will announce his White House bid Monday in his hometown of Central, population about 5,000. I took my family there Sunday, both to revisit his roots and because the fried chicken, biscuits and homemade desserts at the Central Station Cafe are good enough, as we say down here, to make you slap your momma. I have no idea what this means, but we do say it.

I first met Graham in 2001. I was a reporter at the local paper covering Central and he was a House member running to take the Senate seat the 276-year-old Strom Thurmond was vacating. Graham is a reporter's dream, much like his mentor and friend, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). His entertaining and provocative views make him a darling of the Sunday-morning interview circuit. He's also indicative of the vast philosophical wingspan of the GOP.

Graham believes in climate change. One of the most hawkish members of the Senate, he recently said, "Get ready for a voice that understands you can't save America without someone willing to sacrifice and die for America . . . To our enemies, get ready, because there's a new way of doing business coming."

He is strongly pro-immigrant. He voted for President Barack Obama's Supreme Court picks, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan, on the Senate Judiciary Committee and on the floor, because, he said, "Elections have consequences."

He is a successful South Carolina Republican who has endured for decades rumors that he is gay, rumors he categorically denies. And he is, gasp, maybe the most aggressively bipartisan senator in Washington.

Graham. Carson. Jeb Bush. Bobby Jindal. Rand Paul. Mike Huckabee. Carly Fiorina. Ted Cruz. Chris Christie. Scott Walker. Rick Santorum. Rick Perry. Marco Rubio.

There are libertarians and Christian conservatives and southerners and midwesterners and big-money establishment types and white guys and Hispanics and a black neurosurgeon who has compared the Islamic State with America's Founding Fathers.

Together they represent a wide breadth of philosophies, and they're going to make this nomination battle a fight for the direction of the Republican Party. That's a fight worth paying attention to.

And I haven't even mentioned the presidential aspirations of one of New York's own ex-governors, George Pataki. He favors abortion rights. He is largely supportive of same-sex marriage. I have always found the most fascinating thing about him to be his middle name, Elmer, but he does work to prove the assertion: Right now just about any idea or candidate can find some space in the race for the Republican nomination.

Lane Filler is a member of Newsday's editorial board.

Newsday LogoYour Island. Your Community. Your News.Digital AccessOnly 25¢for 5 months