{{show_title_date || "Matthews to GOP: You didn't stand up to Trump, 'now you're paying for it', 9/16/15, 7:27 PM ET"}}

Lindsey Graham: The stand-out ‘kids table’ debater who won’t go far

Updated

Sen. Lindsey Graham, the oldest and most experienced candidate at the ‘kid’s table,’ dominated the GOP presidential debate on Wednesday – and at times even seemed to be moderating it himself in a surprisingly assured performance.

But thanks to “outsider” appeal that has resonated with voters far more than decades of public service the four candidates relegated to the early debates by low polling numbers and Donald Trump’s resilience in the GOP contest so far, Graham’s improved debate performance is unlikely to do anything for his struggling campaign.

Graham, whose performance in the Fox undercard debate in August was roundly panned, performed with greater confidence and offered up a few laugh lines, like that legal immigration was necessary to preserve social security, otherwise people would need to “have four kids after age 67” like the late former segregationist Sen. Strom Thurmond.

 RELATED: The reality TV show Trump is producing before our eyes

Graham seized particularly forcefully on military strategy and immigration, Trump’s signature issue. It’s the same issue one that’s helped put Graham out in the cold with his own party because of his work to collaborate with Democrats on comprehensive reform. He sparred tersely former Sen. Rick Santorum, arguing for a more moderate view that would help expand the party.

“I’ll win fighting for Americans,” Santorum insisted. 

“In my world, Hispanics are Americans,” Graham fired back.

Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, the son of Indian immigrants, struggled to defend his support for a pathway to citizenship as part of his immigration reform plans from Santorum, who dismissed it as amnesty as he sought to try and tap into the momentum Trump has seen with harsh views on immigration.

Hardball with Chris Matthews, 9/16/15, 7:42 PM ET

Who won the 'happy hour' debate?

Chris Matthews - along with Kasie Hunt, Michael Steele, Andrea Mitchell and Eugene Robinson - talk the highs and lows of the second Republican “happy hour” debate. Plus, a look at how all four candidates attacked Donald Trump.

“I am not for amnesty I have never been for amnesty, I will never be for amnesty,” Jindal said, reiterating his more conservative immigration stances, like holding sanctuary city officials criminally liable, securing the border.

“Wages are flat-lining, the reason that you’re seeing the angst and the anger out there is because workers in America know that their wages are being undermined,” Santorum said.

At the end of the debate, Graham schooled Jindal for not being honest in his campaign trail promises.

“You’re running to be president of the United States with it comes with a certain amount of honesty,” Graham said. “I’m tired of telling people things that I know we can’t do.”

He continued: “If I’m president of the United States I wouldn’t put one penny in my budget for Planned Parenthood … but the one thing I’m not going to do going into 2016 is shut the government down and take our ability to win away.”

A behind-the-scenes look at the CNN Republican debate
The pressure is on for the Republican candidates to perform in Wednesday's GOP primary debate in California.

Bobby Jindal, Donald Trump, George Pataki, Lindsey Graham and Rick Santorum

Lindsey Graham: The stand-out 'kids table' debater who won't go far

Updated