Graham Is Serious About 2016, But Does He Have a Prayer?

Graham Is Serious About 2016, But Does He Have a Prayer?
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How wide open is the race for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination? Even Lindsey Graham is thinking seriously about running.

That’s no knock on Graham’s acumen or his political talents.

In more than two decades in Washington as a five-term U.S. House member and third-term South Carolina senator, Graham has won all of his races by double-digit margins, while developing a reputation as a conservative who is at times willing to work with Democrats to get things done.

He is an Air Force veteran with an appealing blue-collar background and a knack for debating that would allow him to stand toe to toe on stage with any of the other potential Republican 2016 contenders.

As a member of the Arms Services Committee, which is chaired by his close friend and campaign trail buddy John McCain, Graham is one of the Senate’s most respected foreign policy hawks, having showcased a depth of knowledge on international affairs that is unsurpassed in the Republican Party. 

Graham’s name has never really been bandied about as presidential material until recently. But in a presidential race in which foreign policy has been increasingly at the forefront, Graham appears to have had an epiphany about his own national ambitions: “Why not me?”

In January, he formed an exploratory committee called “Security Through Strength,” which is funding the testing-the-waters stage of his potential White House run.

As a result, one question has become the central element of an informal parlor game being conducted by South Carolina politicos this winter: “What’s Lindsey thinking?”

Theories range from Graham’s perceived desire to “yell at Rand Paul” at GOP debates to a suspicion that he might be able to surprise people on the fundraising front, due in part to the new campaign finance environment, in which a single donor can sustain an entire campaign. 

But while perspectives on Graham’s motives differ, just about everyone in South Carolina now agrees on one point: He’s serious about this.

“I think he is thinking there is a path and that there are important issues that must be addressed, and he is the best one to address them,” said South Carolina GOP political consultant Chip Felkel, who is not working for any of the prospective 2016 contenders. “I don’t think that Graham cedes anything to anyone in the Senate or otherwise on national security or on being a defense hawk. No one has traveled more, met with or has more relationships with the key international players than Graham.”

After devoting most of the last few weeks to organizational and fundraising efforts, Graham is getting ready to hit the trail in earnest.

He traveled to Iowa last month and has two separate trips to New Hampshire planned over the next couple of weeks.

While making some noise in Iowa would be nice, it is the Granite State—where his support for comprehensive immigration reform, environmental protection and other conservative apostasies won’t necessarily kill him—that would serve as the focal point of his early campaign maneuverings, Graham’s allies agree.

“Lindsey’s going to be well received in New Hampshire,” said Katon Dawson, a longtime South Carolina-based Graham adviser who is already signed on to work for Rick Perry’s likely presidential campaign. “Lindsey is a very personally polished, good retail campaigner.”

In addition to his politicking prowess—a skill that is highly prized in the first-in-the-nation primary state—Graham also has an ace in the hole in the form of McCain, whose own bond with New Hampshire Republicans runs deep after they awarded him victories in both the 2000 and 2008 primaries.  

It’s not hard to imagine a scenario in which the 78-year-old Arizona senator deigns to scrape the rust off the ol’ Straight Talk Express for one more joy ride through town hall meetings from Nashua to the North Country—only this time with the 59-year-old South Carolinian, whom he jokes is his “illegitimate son,” in tow.

Graham may be a lifelong bachelor, but he has an ironclad political partner in McCain.

"I formally endorse him," McCain told reporters shortly after Graham launched his exploratory committee. "He has my all-out complete support. That's not just friendship. It's got to do with national security and what I believe are grave threats to this nation." 

In theory, Graham’s path to the nomination would go something like this: First, he’d try to put in a respectable showing in Iowa, while downplaying the caucuses.  

Meanwhile, he’d launch a full-blown, McCain-style insurgent campaign in New Hampshire, in the hopes of either winning the state outright or vastly exceeding the low expectations he would begin with there.

Then it’s on to his home state of South Carolina, where Graham likely would have to win, in order to keep his candidacy afloat.

If he were to do so, the next big target would be March 1, 2016—the date seven southern states are eyeing for a so-called SEC primary. (The SEC is college sports’ Southeastern Conference.)

If that proposal does indeed come to pass, it would offer Graham an opportunity to emphasize his own Deep South roots on the way to solidifying his standing heading into the heart of the primary calendar. 

But not even the biggest Graham supporter could argue that this path to the nomination contains a lot of “if’s,” the biggest of which is: Can he raise the money that will be required to run a viable national campaign?

Several Republicans interviewed for this story agree that Graham would be capable, under the right circumstances, of raising enough cash to stay viable—particularly if he is able to lock down the support of casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, who reportedly appeared at a fundraiser for Graham’s exploratory committee on Tuesday.

“I think there are a number of significant donors who believe Lindsey has a depth and level of experience on defense and security that goes beyond what others might have,” said one plugged-in Republican operative with ties to Graham. “Rubio is good at it but quite new. I think someone like a Sheldon Adelson may decide that a candidate like Lindsey is the one to back. If he did so in a big way, that is money enough.”

Still, the obstacles to Graham’s path to the nomination remain more glaring than the opportunities.

He would start off the race as a small fish in a big pond—a pond filled with teeth-bearing sharks who have been plotting their own White House runs for years.

In a Winthrop poll released this week, only 34 percent of South Carolina Republicans said that Graham should run for president—not exactly an encouraging nudge from the GOP voters who know him best. 

But Graham has been around politics long enough to know that surprising opportunities can open for those who put themselves in a position to seize them, if and when they arise. 

Scott Conroy is a national political reporter for RealClearPolitics. He can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @RealClearScott.

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