South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham in some ways is an ideal Republican presidential candidate. His views, from opposing President Obama’s foreign policy agenda to backing a pathway to legalization for undocumented immigrants, mirror those of the elite and blue-state Republicans who usually pick the GOP nominee.
Having served as a judge advocate in the Air Force and then in the South Carolina House of Representatives, the U.S. House and the U.S. Senate, he has a wealth of relevant experience. A close of friend Arizona Sen. John McCain, Graham saw the presidential campaign process first-hand, traveling the country and helping prepare McCain for the debates in 2008. In short, he is a traditional conservative Republican with experience whose last name is not Bush.
Even with that experience, Graham will almost certainly not be the Republican nominee. But his entrance spotlights an already-lively competition within the Republican Party, especially on foreign policy and the war on terrorism.
Graham, who formally announced his candidacy Monday morning, faces many challenges, none bigger than his late start. While candidates only officially started running this year, the informal process to court donors and key advisers began the day Mitt Romney lost in 2012, if not before.
Graham, until late last year, had done little to signal he was running for president. This meant the press did not cover him as a potential candidate, instead focusing its attention on Republican senators like Ted Cruz of Texas and Marco Rubio of Florida. Key party officials, even in South Carolina, had already opted to back other candidates before Graham signaled he was truly running.
As a result, Graham is so low in opinion polls right now that he may not qualify for the Fox News debate in August, since the network is only including the top 10 Republicans in national surveys.
Ex-Florida Gov. Jeb Bush didn’t really start preparing a 2016 run until last fall either, but he quickly organized fundraisers and events across the country to catch-up. And he had a built-in network of his father's and brother’s supporters.
To be sure, even if Graham had signaled he was running sooner, he would have the hurdle of his non-traditional political style. Increasingly running for president is as much about showing off your telegenic spouse and children as expressing your views on health care and other issues. Graham is unmarried and childless in a country where the last person elected president without a spouse was Grover Cleveland in 1884.
Also, Graham is at times very candid, a trait that often causes problems for presidential candidates. On a recent swing through Iowa, he repeatedly made awkward jokes implying that his GOP colleague, Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley, is a cheapskate who prefers to get things for free whenever possible. In a recording obtained by CNN of a closed-door speech Graham delivered in South Carolina last year, the senator joked, "We got any Presbyterians here? We got any Baptists? They're the ones that drink and don't admit it.”
In another exchange, Graham said, again trying to be funny, “white men who are in male-only clubs are going to do great in my presidency.”
With these challenges, it’s simply hard to see where Graham gets votes outside of his home state of South Carolina. (And polls suggest he is not assured of victory there either.) Bush and Rubio in particular offer Republicans very similar policy views to Graham but with more traditional profiles as candidates.
Graham has acknowledged that he is a long-shot. Some in political circles have suggested Graham is running simply to ensure the Republican Party remains hawkish on national security issues, even if he does not win himself.
"We got any Presbyterians here? We got any Baptists? They're the ones that drink and don't admit it."
Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, another 2016 GOP candidate, has sharply criticized the NSA’s phone surveillance program and the extensive use of drones by the Obama administration. Paul is urging a more modest, less interventionist approach to U.S. foreign policy than under the George W. Bush administration. Graham has already started to attack Paul’s views as unfit for a commander-in-chief.
But Paul, not Graham, is the outlier. Nearly every other GOP 2016 candidate, like Graham, supports the NSA program and opposes the Obama administration’s nuclear talks with Iran. There are plenty of Republicans in the 2016 field to offer rebuttals to Paul other than Graham.
Graham has hinted he deserves strong consideration from Republicans because of his experience, having served in the Senate since 2003. The senator, in an interview with the Weekly Standard last year, said Rubio was “not quite ready” to be president.
Republicans may end up agreeing with Graham that Rubio is too green to be the party’s nominee. But they are still unlikely to turn to the 59-year-old Graham.