CENTRAL, South Carolina – Warning that “the world is exploding in terror and violence,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) announced a long-shot presidential campaign in his small home town on Monday predicated on aggressively confronting threats from the Islamic State and Iran abroad.
“I’m pretty sure no one here, including me, ever expected to hear me say, ‘I’m Lindsey Graham, and I’m running for president of the United States,’” he told a cheering crowd of dozens of flag-waving supporters gathered just steps from the former pool hall on Main Street that he grew up in.
It’s hard to talk about Graham’s candidacy without mentioning his ideological archrival, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), whose libertarian approach to civil liberties, dovish take on military conflict and deep skepticism of an active foreign policy runs directly counter to the South Carolina lawmaker’s own stance.
“I want to be president to defeat the enemies that are trying to kill us,” Graham said in his announcement.
Both candidates seem eager to play the mongoose to the other’s snake as the 2016 presidential campaign heats up. Their conflict reached its peak in recent days after Paul successfully forced the temporary expiration of PATRIOT Act provisions that govern, among other things, the phone record spy program revealed by Edward Snowden. Graham favors a maximalist approach to counterterrorism.
Paul frequently fires up supporters by quoting Graham’s latest jingoisms on the trail – this week he criticized Graham’s boast that he would drone strike an American citizen suspected of terrorism rather than “call a judge.” During Paul’s PATRIOT Act filibuster, Graham gave an eye roll worthy of the surliest teenager and a clip of it from a live C-Span broadcast went viral. Paul went on to lambast the “eye roll caucus” in an e-mail to supporters last week and a pro-Paul super PAC responded with a web ad going after Graham.
Graham didn’t mention Paul directly in his announcement Monday, but he alluded to conflicts with rival lawmakers back in Washington.
“We’ve made some dangerous mistakes in recent years,” Graham said. “The Obama administration and some of my colleagues in Congress have substituted wishful thinking for sound national security strategy.”
Graham boasted that he has “more experience with our national security then any other candidate in this race – that includes you, Hillary.”
The tension put USC senior Anna Chapman, 21, in an awkward spot. A devoted Paul supporter, she volunteered at the event as a favor to her fellow College Republicans.
“I’m here to support Graham … kind of,” she said. “He is from South Carolina, it’s cool that he’s running. I’m not going to bash him, but I don’t think he’s going to win the nomination.”
Foreign affairs may be Graham’s calling card, but it’s hardly all he’s known for. At times he has split from GOP conservatives to broker bipartisan deals, most notably as co-author of the immigration reform bill that passed the Senate in 2013 but never came up for a vote in the House amid intense conservative opposition. Graham’s speech included a message for fellow Democrats, whom he pledged to work with the to make progress on areas of agreement should he win the White House.
“Our differences are real and we’ll debate them, but you’re not my enemy, you’re my fellow countrymen,” he said.
Language like this appealed to attendees like Jim Eshelman, an engineer in Greenville, who is interested in Graham but still not committed to backing him.
“I love his spirit of bipartisanship – the gridlock has been awful,” he said.
Graham’s advisers also see potential in showcasing his humble roots, which 2016 candidates like Scott Walker and Marco Rubio have used to great effect in campaign speeches to connect with voters. The senator grew up in the back of a bar owned by his parents, who died within 15 months of each other while he was in his early 20s, leaving him to raise his younger sister himself. Graham put himself through law school and took officer training in the Air Force, where he ended up serving as a judge advocate.
Graham, who was introduced by his sister, mentioned the Social Security benefits he received after his parents’ death in pledging to reform the program to sustain it in the long term.
“As president I will gladly do what it takes to save the program that once saved my family,” he said.
A fixture on Sunday political talk shows, Graham is among the most prominent and frequently quoted lawmakers in the national media on a variety of issues. Despite his high visibility, he’s considered well short of the top tier in the presidential race, and polls show he may have a tough time qualifying for primary debates, which will choose participants based on their support in national surveys.
He may have a bigger impact in South Carolina, however, a crucial early primary state that helped galvanize conservative opposition to Mitt Romney in 2012 by going for Newt Gingrich and sealed John McCain’s nomination in 2008 against Mike Huckabee.
Many of the supporters who gathered here on Monday knew Graham personally or mentioned his dedicated constituent work. He once threatened to shut down the Senate to fast track a project deepening a major port. This attention to detail back home helped keep him safe from primary threats in his easy 2014 re-election despite major tea party opposition.
Vendors at the rally sold “Lindsey Graham: Native Son” buttons. If he takes even a sizable minority of votes, it’s possible he could peel votes from other candidates in a way that affects the race. In 2008, for example, former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson was widely credited with pushing McCain past the finish line by splitting southern conservative support with Huckabee.
“South Carolina voters are an independent bunch — some will support Sen. Graham, and some will not,” South Carolina’s Republican governor NIkki Haley said in a statement that praised, but did not endorse, Graham. “But regardless of where our support goes, Lindsey Graham has earned our gratitude and our good wishes as he begins his campaign today.”