As race turns to SC, Graham settles into role of Bush campaign sidekick

This should have been Lindsey Graham’s moment – a South Carolina Republican senator running for president on the eve of the Palmetto State’s crucial Feb. 20 GOP primary. Leading up to 2016 the issues in the spotlight even broke his way, with the looming threat of the Islamic State and other foreign-policy matters commanding attention.

Instead, as the nation’s attention shifts to his state, Graham will be using his reputation as a military hawk to convince South Carolinians that only one candidate has what it takes to win the White House: former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.

“My time didn’t happen for me,” he told McClatchy in a recent interview. Despite delivering some memorable zingers in the under-card debates, Graham’s campaign failed to register in the polls in a fall dominated by bombastic voices such as those of Donald Trump and Ted Cruz. He suspended his bid in December, and endorsed Bush shortly after.

So is it weird for Graham to be on the sidelines now?

“Totally,” he said. “But I’m enjoying it in a different kind of way. I wish I were still in it, but I’m really impressed with Jeb on so many different issues. He’s clearly done his homework.”

Graham, a senior member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said he endorsed Bush because he’s the only one who “gets it” when it comes to national security and defense – and that will be a big boost in South Carolina.

“South Carolina has always been Jeb’s best bet,” he said. Of the three early-voting states, “it’s the one with the most focus on national security, and the Bush name is very big there. The military footprint in South Carolina is pretty big, not so much in New Hampshire, and people at home are worried. If Jeb has momentum we’ll do very well.”

That’s where Graham comes in: part wisecracking comedian warming up the crowd, part somber national-security hawk adding depth in that area. Outlining a detailed strategy to combat the Islamic State was what distinguished his campaign from others, he said.

“The biggest contribution I made as a candidate is explaining how to combat (the Islamic State), a comprehensive approach with a ground component with the bulk of the troops coming from the region, and a more muscular foreign policy,” he said.

Campaigning with Bush in New Hampshire, Graham said he was frequently approached by voters who said they valued his focus.

“I cannot get over the number of people who came up to me at these town halls I do with Jeb – many are political junkies, it’s a sport out there – I can’t get over how many people I’ve recognized in the crowd who came to my own town halls. There’s a lot of appreciation and feedback for me going in depth,” he said.

“I started almost every time asking things like, ‘How many people think it’s better to fight them over there than here? To hit them before they hit you, because they don’t mind dying?’ and everybody raises their hands,” he said. “So I’d say, ‘Most of you raised your hands, so if you really believe that you better get this right.’ ”

For Graham, getting it right means one thing: experience.

“I know everybody running, so it’s not a personal thing,” he said. For him, Bush just inspires the most confidence in an unpredictable race where anti-establishment outsiders such as Cruz, Trump and Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders are wreaking havoc on their parties. Last month Graham infamously compared having to choose between Cruz and Trump as having to pick between being “shot or poisoned.”

“Trump is a phenomenon we’ve never dealt with before, where 98 percent of the media coverage focuses on one candidate who is bigger than life,” he told McClatchy, adding that the idea of Trump as the nominee is “sick.”

“We learned in 2012 after the postmortem (of the presidential election) that our immigration position is perceived by Hispanics as being very hostile to them – and Trump is just pouring gasoline on it,” he said.

“He disparages Megyn Kelly,” Graham said, speaking of the Fox News anchor. “There’s his comments about Muslims; saying most illegal immigrants are rapists and drug dealers. It just adds fuel to the fire that we’re an intolerant party and that conservatism isn’t for people of color. The narrative he’s creating is taking every 2012 problem and making it worse.”

Countering that narrative is Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, the son of Cuban immigrants whom many have hailed as the face of a modern Republican Party.

“Marco is talented, I like him and I think he’s got an incredible future – but we’re talking about being president in less than a year,” Graham said. “If you tell me Jeb will be president tomorrow I have no doubt he’s capable of doing the job. The next president will be challenged like he’s never been before. He has to put together coalitions that don’t exist, deal with a fractured Congress and give people in the country confidence that politics can work.”

Graham pointed to President Barack Obama’s inexperience before taking office, warning that it can be dangerous, especially when it comes to foreign policy.

“I don’t question the president’s patriotism. He thinks he’s doing good, but he’s not, and it’s not on purpose. I don’t think anyone in their right mind would want to see Syria totally collapsing, and people being killed. He’s just in over his head,” Graham said.

Second to experience is electability, and Graham said Bush had the best shot of all the candidates in the general election.

“I have no doubt that if (the Democratic nominee) is Hillary Clinton, if it’s a Jeb-Hillary race, he will win. People don’t trust her. But yes, if it’s Marco, I’ll support him.”

For now, Graham said he planned to use logic to make the case for Bush to his fellow South Carolinians.

“I want to get people through my thought process as to why I picked him,” he said.

“I want to tell them make sure that you’re picking someone with a good temperament, who’s been tested and can actually accomplish something, and reach across the aisle . . . who is ready for the job and can go into the Oval Office with the experience you need to put not only the country back together but put the world back together.”

The week ahead of the Feb. 20 primary will be crucial, Graham said, because “after South Carolina, the presidential race will be reshaped.” Despite his state’s reputation for rough politics, he thinks it will go smoothly.

“One thing I’d tell people in South Carolina is don’t get nasty, don’t get dirty and just make sure we don’t reward people who are overly nasty and dirty,” he said.

“You’ll vote not based on what sounds good but what makes sense. Challenge candidates, and if it sounds too good to be true it probably is.”

Vera Bergengruen: 202-383-6036, @verambergen

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