“Unless you have a complete meltdown, you’re going to get confirmed,” South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham told Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor.

“And I don’t think you will (have a complete meltdown),” added the conservative member of the Senate Judiciary Committee as the hearing on President Obama’s first high court nominee commenced.

Most members of the committee followed pattern. Democrats were supportive, while most Republicans — led by Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions — repeated anti-Sotomayor talking points.

Graham broke the pattern.

His comments were the most significant of the opening session of the confirmation hearing, as they seemed to lay the groundwork for mainstream Republicans to vote to make Sotomayor the first Latina justice to sit on the Supreme Court.

Democrats have a majority of the seats on the Judiciary Committee and 60 seats in the Senate — enough to force a confirmation vote, and to win it. So the safest bet has always been that the federal appeals court judge from New York will be confirmed by a Senate where Judiciary Committee member Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, says Sotomayor is “uniformly” seen by Republicans and Democrars as “highly qualified.”

But the signal from Graham at Monday’s session suggested there is a good chance key elements within the “party of no” will say yes to Sotomayor. That should allow her nomination to be sent from the Judiciary Committee to the full Senate with a strong recommendation that it be approved. And it now looks increasingly likely that the vote of approval will be broad and bipartisan — though Monday’s combative statements from Sessions and Senator Tom Coburn, R-Oklahoma, suggested it will not be unanimous.

What was clear from Graham’s comments and from a gentler than expected opening statement by Texas Senator John Cornyn was that the far right’s campaign of character assassination that sought to block the nomination seems to have fallen far short of the baseline goal of solidifying Republican opposition to Sotomayor.

Graham, a swing vote on the committee, rejected most attacks on Sotomayor as “mainly about liberal and conservative politics.”

“I’m not going to hold it against you or an organization for advocating a cause with which I disagree,” said the senator, who grumbled a bit about specific statements that Sotomayor had made but who went out of his way to reject that absurd claims by talk-radio host Rush Limbaugh and others that the nominee is some kind of “racist.”

In fact, Graham directed his criticism at Senator Barack Obama rather than the president’s nominee.

Taking shots at Obama for voting as a senator from Illinois to block judicial nominees of the Bush administration, Graham declared that, “My inclination is that elections matter.”

That was the essential message of the South Carolinian’s challenging but essentially warm opening statement, which leaned heavily on the principle that presidents should be given broad latitude in making judicial nominations.

“I don’t think anybody worked harder for Senator McCain than I did, and we lost,” Graham said. “Barack Obama won, and that matters.”