Has foreign policy saved Lindsay Graham?

Greg Nash

Once a top target of conservative groups, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) has used his full-throated criticism of President Obama on foreign policy to tamp down the threat of a serious primary challenge.

From his perch on the Senate Armed Services Committee, Graham has attacked Obama on everything from Benghazi to Syria to defense cuts to Israel, shoring up his conservative bona fides and helping to quash a potential Tea Party challenge -- he faces a handful of nominal primary opponents, none of whom who have much of a chance. 

Even though he's likely safe in his June primary even if he's forced into a runoff, the heightened tensions with Russia have given him a yet another opening to hit President Obama. 

The South Carolina senator is a staple on the Sunday morning show circuit, ripping Obama and has a new campaign commercial out criticizing his foreign policy. He and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) co-authored an op-ed on CNN saying Obama’s  “scream loudly and carry no stick” foreign policy had failed to deter Russia.

“It's no wonder Putin has concluded that he's unlikely to face serious consequences for his imperial adventure. The U.S. did nothing when he invaded Georgia in 2008. More recently, we did nothing after the Syrian regime violated the "red line" Obama had established regarding the use of chemical weapons there,” they wrote. 

He also released a new ad earlier this week touting his opposition to Obama on foreign policy. 

“He stands up for America and our troops, challenging the president, asking the tough questions on Iran, Benghazi and radical Islam,” the ad’s narrator says. “In a dangerous world where the only guarantee of peace is strength, Lindsey Graham stands strong.” 

South Carolina-based Republican strategist Warren Tompkins said Graham’s attacks on Obama over national security have helped him ward off a serious challenge in the military-heavy state — and that the reemergence of Russia as a threat further increases his chances of a primary win. 

“He's gotten a boost recently by the actions of the Russians in Crimea — it brought back to life the old Russian bear, and there's a resurgence in [hawkish] attitudes on foreign affairs and the military,” he said. ”It's a positive agenda-changer for Graham. It's in the news and on the forefront of other people's thoughts, it's a big-subject changer and you're not talking about the things he doesn't want to be talking about.”

Early in 2013, Graham looked all but certain to have a prominent primary foe. He was taking heat for backing immigration reform and national conservative groups were threatening to oppose him because of some of his past votes on economic issues.

But Graham showcased himself as a fierce opponent of the president on foreign policy, helping to tamp down anger in the state for his working across the aisle on other issues. Military issues are important in South Carolina, a state with a large number of active-duty servicemen and veterans.

No serious contenders emerged to run against him, and those who did jump in have struggled to gain any traction against the senator. 

Graham almost reached the 50 percent threshold he’ll need to avoid a primary runoff against his four primary opponents in a late February poll.

In a recent interview with CNN, Graham tied together different areas where he believes Obama has failed.

"It's just not about the Ukraine, about our standing in the world," Graham said.  "When you tell the world we're gonna find the people who killed our four Americans in Libya, including the ambassador, and you do nothing about it; whether you agree with his policy in Syria, Egypt, whether you agree with his policies, when he tells people there will be consequences, and there are none, it sets in motion exactly what you see."

But Graham argued he wasn’t harping on Benghazi for political reasons.

"Everything I've done has been about what I think is best for the country. I think it's best to find the truth about Benghazi, when my primary's over, and I'm gonna win, I'm gonna still be on Benghazi," he said.

Nonetheless, Graham’s hits on Obama have paid dividends.

“Right now in South Carolina, Obama is the issue — aree you going to go to Washington to be on Obama's team or the other team? And on this it's pretty clear where Lindsey is,” said Tompkins.

More in Presidential races

McCain holding out for Graham presidential bid

Read more »