Why is Lindsey Graham considering a presidential run?

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Jon Ward
·Chief National Correspondent
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Senator Lindsey Graham in the snow in New Hampshire. (Photo: Jon Ward/Yahoo News)

BELMONT, N.H. – I could see the headlines in my mind: “U.S. senator injured when journalist drives off the road.”

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) had just finished speaking to a gathering of local Republicans at the Top of the Town restaurant here, exiting into a near-blizzard.

He took a picture with a local Republican official to document the early April snowstorm — “Nobody back home is going to believe this,” he cracked — then announced to his two aides that he would be driving back to Concord with me, the lone journalist accompanying him that day.

An hourlong trip south on a completely dark, near-empty and snow-covered Interstate 93 followed. Flakes whipping down toward the windshield, I kept my speed at about 35 miles per hour. Any faster and the Nissan Altima started to fishtail.

Eventually we pulled up behind a car going even slower.

“Should I go around?” I asked the senator. I edged the car over to the left to see if it was doable or if the snow on the road was too thick outside of the one lane both cars were forging down the highway.

“Go for it,” said Graham.

The storm had caught the state by surprise. Graham made an occasional remark about the absurdity of driving in such snowy conditions, but mainly he didn’t seem too bothered by them.

We didn’t see a plow for the entire trip. But we did see a car that had slid off the right side of the road into a ditch, hitting some trees at the bottom of a small hill.

We pulled over and got out to see if the driver was OK. Her door was open, and an off-duty cop who had pulled over a few minutes before us in his pickup truck was standing next to her.

“Is everybody all right?” Graham hollered. The young police officer said the driver was not injured and had called AAA. A tow truck was on its way. Graham noticed the badge on his belt and told the officer, “Thanks for taking care of her.”

As we walked back to the car, I pulled out my iPhone to take a picture of Graham and the car and the snow-covered Interstate. With the preternatural instincts of a politician facing a camera, Graham turned and put his right elbow on the car and posed for a picture.

It was a situation that most politicians would find utterly uncomfortable: caught in a freak snowstorm alone on the road with a journalist. But Graham seemed to be enjoying himself.

***

Graham is very seriously thinking about running for the Republican presidential nomination, even though, in the age of television, he appears to have a less- than-zero chance of cracking the top five — maybe even the top 10 — in the GOP field.

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Graham as the snow begins to descend in New Hampshire. (Photo: Jon Ward/Yahoo News)

Graham will turn 60 in July. He looks about as presidential as your local town councilman and dresses like him, too: blue blazer with gold buttons on his sleeve, pleated baggy gray cotton slacks and beat-up black loafers. “That’s his uniform. I’ve never seen the guy wear anything other than a blue blazer and gray slacks,” one Senate aide said.

And very few people outside of his home state know who he is.

At one point, when Graham strolled into a basement bar in a New Hampshire VFW hall, a woman asked no one in particular, “Who is he?”

He’s a senator from South Carolina, the answer came back. The woman turned to Graham’s two aides — Brittany Bramell and Jon Seaton — and asked in a stage whisper, “What’s his name?”

“Lindsey Graham,” one of them responded.

“Lindsey what?” she said.

“Graham.”

So why is Graham doing this?

Maybe it’s just that he, like his close friend Sen. John McCain, (R-Ariz.), yearns to be where the action is, in the fight, making a contribution. There’s no question that Graham has long had a serious interest in trying to solve some of the thorniest problems in politics. Immigration, entitlement reform and energy policy are the trinity of issues that have most moved him.

Congress is likely to be hopelessly deadlocked for the final two years of Obama’s presidency. The most overused cliché about Graham — which also happens to be true — is that he has no life other than politics. He proved this as soon as I sat down by saying he was a Braves fan but then asking me who I was talking about when I mentioned Atlanta’s trading of Jason Heyward to the Cardinals.

So is running for president the best way to inch key debates forward, and also a way to keep from falling asleep?

“Yeah, this is sort of what I do when I’m bored,” Graham joked at one point.

But even as he started in on an attempt at a serious argument for why he should throw his hat in the ring, he sounded like he was waffling.

“Uh, no, really, I think I’ve got a decent chance at the nomination or I wouldn’t try. And I’ve got to convince myself I have a decent chance,” he said. “Message, means and momentum is what a guy like me needs.”

He clarified: The only thing he needs to convince himself about is the means quotient. Can he raise the $15 million he thinks he needs for the hard money campaign side? He said he’ll decide by May. Ask anyone who knows Graham well and they’ll assure you he’s not just going to run for president on a lark. He’ll game out the pros and cons, and if he decides to do it, he’ll make a serious attempt.

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Graham, left, with Cindy McCain listening, introduces then-presidential candidate Sen. John McCain at a rally in Zanesville, Ohio. (Photo: Amy Sancetta/AP)

Graham has seen presidential politics up close as a regular McCain companion in both his 2000 and 2008 presidential campaigns. He knows what is required to mount a candidacy. His fledgling campaign team is full of former McCain staffers.

It’s also worth noting that South Carolina votes third in the Republican presidential primary. That gives Graham an intriguing native-son advantage in the Palmetto State if he can finish in the top three in Iowa and New Hampshire. No question, though, that’s a big if.

Yet one Iowa Republican reported that a February Graham event in the Hawkeye State was hosted by Ron Dardis, the former adjutant general of the Iowa National Guard and a close friend of newly elected — and quite popular — Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa). The plugged-in Republican didn’t recognize more than a handful of people in the group of 75, he said. They were mostly retired and active military folks.

“If folks like this who aren’t normally showing up at GOP functions or on lists of typical caucus attendees are showing up a full year before the caucuses to meet and listen to Lindsey — maybe there’s an opportunity there,” the Iowa Republican said.

Graham — who has data about veterans’ issues coming out of his ears from his time on the Senate Armed Services Committee and can talk veterans’ benefits with just about anyone — knows that veterans are a key constituency for him.

“This is my base right here: military families,” he said in the VFW bar.

At the least, Graham is setting himself up as kingmaker in the South Carolina primary, which would enlarge his profile and set him up to play a big role in Washington if the Republican nominee ends up winning in 2016.

***

“Do you have a code?” I had asked Graham after his meeting at the VFW hall with about a dozen aging veterans.

We were seated in folding chairs across from each other at a plastic folding table in the now empty hall, downstate in Merrimack.

Graham thought I was asking him for his phone code (he has never e-mailed and uses a flip phone but told me he has an iPad and an iPhone at home; he doesn’t travel with the latter, because, he said, he loses it too often). When I clarified that I was asking if he has a personal code, he sat back. “Oh, oh, oh, OK. That’s really a good question,” he said.

“I guess the thing that drives my thinking the most as a politician is to not get in a comfort zone. Here’s my code, I guess,” Graham said.

I prodded him to expand.

“I could stay in this job forever,” he said, referring to his Senate seat. “I know exactly what to say, and I know exactly what to do to be electable as far as the eye can see.

“I have always pushed myself. The easiest thing for all of us to do is to get in a groove, get in a comfort zone, where you no longer challenge yourself, whether it be in your marriage or whether it be in your business,” he said. “I got a good thing going with my life here. How do you not take the marriage to the next level? You always gotta be challenging yourself.”

He continued: “For me to go to the next level, I’ve got to even go further out of my comfort zone. I’m going to be in a widely attended primary process if I run, and in many ways I’ll be the odd guy out on certain issues. I just gotta stand my ground and take what comes my way.”

If Graham were ever to gain any traction in the Republican primary, however, he would come under closer scrutiny, and harsher criticism, than he’s ever experienced in his life.

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Graham (center) and Sen. Richard Durbin (back to camera) discussing immigration reform on Capitol Hill. (Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty)

He would have to explain to a conservative Republican primary electorate why he thinks illegal immigrants should receive citizenship, why he believes in climate change, and why he thinks America should continue to involve itself militarily in the Middle East.

But he would probably face the questions — even if most of them were only whispered — about his sexuality. He has for so long been rumored to be gay that he has publicly denied it. “I know it’s really gonna upset a lot of gay men — I’m sure hundreds of ’em are gonna be jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge — but I ain’t available,” Graham cracked to The New York Times in 2010. “I ain’t gay. Sorry.”

Graham went out of his way in New Hampshire last week to put his lifelong bachelorhood on the table with every group of voters he spoke with.

“I’m 59. I’m not married. I don’t have any kids,” he said at one town hall, and uttered a similar line at each stop.

When we discussed gay marriage, he maintained that marriage is between one man and one woman.

“I support traditional marriage without animosity. It’s just a structure that’s stood the test of time. I think it’s good for society,” he said.

If Graham never gets beyond the low single digits and can sneak into the primary debates to play the part of a rabble-rousing, truth-speaking backbencher, without ever being taken all that seriously, his personal life will likely never become the subject of national scrutiny or conversation.

But it still seems like a high-risk bet. Graham seems willing to do it though. You always gotta be challenging yourself.

***

When it comes to answering the hard questions on nonpersonal issues, Graham is pretty good at it, and he’s actually equipped to make a substantive impact on the primary debate.

Graham was just reelected to a third term last fall, in a deep red state, while talking often about the need for a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants and for greater U.S. military involvement in the Middle East.

Graham’s down-home drawl and off-center wit are a sugary coating that he uses to disarm audiences so that he can dispense some very unwelcome realities to the Republican party’s most conservative voters, particularly on immigration.

The confrontation that Graham is seeking on this issue often comes to him, as it did here during his appearance in Belmont at the biweekly dinner of the Belknap County Republican Committee, when a man with a mustache and a short ponytail, wearing a suit and tie, rose and challenged Graham from the back of the main dining room.

“Didn’t you kind of support amnesty for illegal aliens at one point?” said Raymond Howard Jr. Howard — who last fall was elected to New Hampshire’s 400-member state House and who told me later that he thought Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker was acceptable but that Donald Trump was “what we really need” — asserted to Graham that undocumented immigrants were getting taxpayer-funded benefits “they never earned.”

Graham pounced. “This is a great question,” he said. He immediately contradicted Howard’s statement that illegal immigrants can receive government benefits, but then ran the audience through a series of questions and answers.

“Paying these guys under the table hurts every worker in America. Do you agree?” he said. There were a handful of yeses.

“All right. Do you agree that having a porous border allows somebody to come in to the country to blow us up?” he said.

“Yup,” someone said.

“Do you agree that having 11 million people living in the shadows is not good for our culture?” Graham inquired. This time there was a muted response.

“Do you agree that they’re here mostly to work?”

He was met with several emphatic noes, but forged ahead, using his background as an Air Force lawyer to lead the crowd like a witness in a trial.

“Why are they here?” he said.

“For the freebies,” a woman said. “Freebies,” a man echoed.

Graham sounded slightly exasperated. “Well, they — that’s wrong, absolutely,” he said.

Howard spoke up from the back of the room.

“I can tell you some in this state that are illegal aliens and are signed up and getting benefits,” said the 62-year-old state rep.

“You can say that, but there is no — you cannot get food stamps, you can’t get Medicare, you can’t get Social Security if you’re illegal,” Graham said and then went beyond defending illegal immigrants to advocating for them. “About $80 billion has been paid into the Social Security system by illegal immigrants, and they’re never going to get the money out. They’ve been paying in, but they’re not going to get it out.”

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Graham speaking to reporters about his Social Security reform plan in Washington. (Photo: Jonathan Ernst/Getty)

This went on for almost 15 minutes, with Graham challenging his listeners, then letting out some pressure with a joke, and then charging back into another rapid-fire series of queries.

“As to the 11 million, crooks are not welcome. Do you agree?” General nods of assent.

“How many of you think they all should be driven out of the country?” Howard raised his hand, along with a few others.

“How many of you think that that’s pretty much hard to do?” Several hands shot up.

“How many of you think that some of them can stay but they gotta learn English?” Several hands went up again, probably responding more to the clause on the back end of that sentence than the one on the front end. “Gotta learn English,” one man said.

“I don’t speak it well, but look at how well I turned out,” Graham cracked, getting a few laughs.

And on and on. “How many of you believe they should get paid over the table, not under the table?”

“Pay taxes?”

“How many of you think they should pay a fine?”

“How many of you think they should not be able to cut in line in front of somebody who’s been waiting years to get here?” There were murmurs of agreement. “Exactly,” a man said.

Graham had gotten the crowd to agree to the basics of the bill that the Senate passed in 2013. “Now we’re talking,” he said, quietly pleased with them, and with himself.

After yanking the small group of hardy conservatives to where he wanted them, Graham circled back for a note of empathy. “Here’s what you’re frustrated with: You don’t trust your government to fix this, do you?”

Graham’s three-pronged message is not all about coaxing Republicans to change their views. His two emphases besides immigration are a strong national defense — a guaranteed crowd-pleaser — and entitlement reform, which appeals to conservatives as well.

He frames his discussion of immigration reform and entitlement reform by explicitly avoiding attacks on people. He defends illegal immigrants but also avoids questioning the motives of conservatives who want to deport every undocumented person.

“What I try to do is not cross lines, not allow myself to get into the position of hating somebody within the party or on the other side because they disagree with me. And sometimes that’s hard to do,” he said.

And on entitlements, he told me he goes out of his way not to run against government or to demonize people who are receiving government benefits.

“What would I do to save Social Security? Almost anything,” he told voters at one stop.

At another event, he said, “If you’re getting Social Security checks, hold your head up high. You’ve got nothing to apologize for.”

He uses his biography as his ultimate rear-guard action to prevent Democrats from characterizing his call for entitlement reform as heartless.

Graham grew up in the same town where he lives now, Seneca, South Carolina, the son of a pool hall and liquor store owner. His parents never graduated from high school.

“It was a good life, but we lived in the back of the liquor store. We didn’t have a bathtub, we didn’t have a shower. I washed with all my family in an iron tub until we bought a trailer. We bought a house when I was in high school,” Graham said.

When Graham was finishing college, his mother died of Hodgkin’s disease. Fifteen months later, his father died. The health care costs for his mother had wiped out the family savings, and now Graham was the legal guardian for his 14-year-old sister.

“If it weren’t for Social Security survivor benefits coming in to my family from my parents’ contribution to my sister, who was a minor, we would have had a hard time paying the bills,” Graham said.

“I will gladly give up some of my future benefits to help those who need it most. So when it comes to talking about health care and Social Security, I don’t need a lecture from the Democrats. I have been there. We’re all one car wreck away from needing somebody to help us.”

***

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Sen. Marco Rubio after announcing that he’s seeking the Republican presidential nomination. (Photo: Carlo Allegri/Reuters)

Graham’s argument that there is a path for him in the incredibly crowded primary depends on two key assumptions. The first is that Jeb Bush will not get enough traction because of his last name and that his expensive and personnel-heavy campaign will collapse under its own weight. The second is that Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) is not ready to be president and that his inexperience will be exposed whenever he gets a turn in the spotlight. Graham doesn’t believe any of the other candidates are built for the long haul like either Bush or Rubio.

When I asked Graham how he matches up against Rubio, he said, “Here’s what the next president’s got to do: rebuild our defenses and reset the world. The next president of the United States needs to be a commander in chief ready to go on day one.”

The clear implication is that Rubio is not. On the stump, Graham often talks about Obama’s lack of experience as a leader before becoming president and argues that’s been to America’s detriment on the world stage. It also lays the groundwork for people to question why Rubio would be any different.

But Graham’s real concern with Rubio’s mettle goes back to their time working together on the Gang of Eight process to craft an immigration bill in 2013. Graham felt that every time the conservative grassroots told Rubio to jump during the negotiations, his only question was how high. After the bill was passed by the Senate only to falter in the House, Rubio ran away from the issue and for a time joined in on the quixotic quest of Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) to shut down the government to defund the president’s health care law.

Last fall, Graham told The Weekly Standard’s Stephen Hayes that the experience had soured him on Rubio’s presidential timbre.

“He’s a good guy, but after doing immigration with him — we don’t need another young guy not quite ready,” Graham said. “He’s no Obama by any means, but he’s so afraid of the right, and I’ve let that go.”

After that quote was printed, Graham called Rubio to walk it back, but in our conversation about Rubio, it was clear Graham still has concerns about the 43-year-old Latino wunderkind and worries he won’t speak the hard truths to the hard right.

“I tell you, the first time I heard my name mentioned on Rush Limbaugh, it was kind of unnerving. I’m like so over that,” Graham said.

As we inched down Interstate 93 to Concord, the snow changed to sleet. I missed the exit to the Courtyard Marriott where Graham’s team was staying and suggested the best way to circle back.

As we approached the hotel, Graham said he thought there is a good possibility that Bush falters.

“OK, so let’s play this out,” he said. “That’s a pretty wide-open field, don’t you think?”