Lindsey Graham runs on national security

Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamBooker calls for hearings on reports of ICE using solitary confinement GOP lays debate trap for 2020 Democrats Overnight Defense: Trump says he doesn't need exit strategy with Iran | McConnell open to vote on Iran war authorization | Senate panel advances bill to restrict emergency arms sales MORE (S.C.) entered the crowded field of Republican presidential candidates on Monday, presenting himself to GOP primary voters as the pre-eminent spokesman for the party’s foreign policy hawks.

“I have one simple message,” Graham said from his hometown of Central, S.C. “I have more experience with our national security than any other candidate.”

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The three-term senator will be seeking to influence the GOP presidential primaries, even if he does not emerge as the party’s nominee. His worldview is the opposite of Sen. Rand PaulRandal (Rand) Howard PaulSenate passes .5 billion border bill, setting up fight with House Senate Health Committee advances bipartisan package to lower health costs Senate GOP to defeat proposal requiring approval for Iran attack MORE’s (R-Ky.) isolationist outlook.

But to exert any kind of significant influence, Graham will first have to make it onto the debate stage — he is by no means assured to do so. 

“The path for him just to make it into the top 10 and get into the debates is going to be very tough,” said Republican strategist Matt Mackowiak.

Fox News and CNN are capping the number of candidates for their first debates at 10, based on national polling numbers. Graham is currently on the outside looking in, barely registering in most national polls.

He is tied for 12th in the latest Quinnipiac University national survey released last week, taking 1 percent support. He’s outside of the top 14 in the RealClearPolitics average of polls, trailing long shots like Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and businesswoman Carly Fiorina.

And even with his foreign policy experience — Graham on Monday cited his time on the Senate Armed Service Committee, his service as a reserve officer in the U.S. Air Force and countless trips to the Middle East — it will be difficult for him to pull away from the pack.

Graham is the fourth senator to throw his hat into the GOP ring, joining Sens. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzWhite House to convene social media summit after new Trump attacks GOP lays debate trap for 2020 Democrats O'Rourke on Senate bid backer Beyoncé: I will have to 'earn her support' for 2020 MORE (Texas), Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioGOP lays debate trap for 2020 Democrats Mellman: Are primary debates different? Overnight Health Care — Sponsored by Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids — Trump issues order to bring transparency to health care prices | Fight over billions in ObamaCare payments heads to Supreme Court MORE (Fla.) and Paul.

Rubio has also made a hawkish national security platform his calling card — though not to the exclusion of almost everything else, as is the case with Graham. The field is set to get another strong voice on international affairs on Thursday, when former Texas Gov. Rick Perry widens the roster of candidates to 10.

“He has the advantage because of his years of experience on that issue, but will voters think that’s enough to vote for him?” Mackowiak said of Graham. “He may have a qualitative advantage over other hawks, but he’s going to have a qualitative disadvantage on lots of other issues primary voters care about. He’s from the McCain wing of the party, and there’s not a lot of thirst among our primary voters for another McCain-type candidate.”

Republican strategists see an opening for Graham to influence the race as either a kingmaker or spoiler in his home state. South Carolina votes early in the primary process; it is expected to be fourth this cycle, after the crucial Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary, as well as the lower-profile Nevada caucuses. 

The Palmetto State GOP primary also has a record of choosing the eventual nominee. It backed the Republican standard-bearer every time from 1980 until former Speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.) — who lost the nomination to former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney — broke that streak in 2012. 

Graham remains popular in a state that has a large military presence. He was an early target of Tea Party groups when he was up for reelection in 2014, but he romped home against a field of conservative insurgents.

A Winthrop University poll from April showed Graham in fourth place in the South Carolina GOP presidential primary, trailing only Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, Cruz and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.

Graham gave short shrift to domestic policies in his launch speech, detouring from foreign policy only to briefly touch upon energy policy and entitlement programs.

Last week, Graham visited Israel, where he met with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and announced he would retire from the Air Force Reserve after more than 30 years in the military. His allies have launched a super-PAC called Security Through Strength to boost his bid.

“I know the players. I know our friends and our enemies alike,” Graham said Monday. “But most importantly, they know me. I have listened, learned and prepared myself for the job of commander in chief.

“Radical Islam is running wild,” he warned. 

“We must take the fight to them,” before terrorists launch another attack on the U.S. He condemned the Obama administration for negotiating with Iran over its nuclear program, saying the president has put the security of Israel at risk.

Graham’s presidential announcement also comes against the backdrop of a bitter, high-stakes battle in the Senate over reforming the National Security Agency, with Paul leading the charge against surveillance powers that he deems excessive. Many in the GOP lean more toward Graham’s hawkishness than Paul’s skepticism.

“I think his announcement couldn’t have come at a better time,” said GOP strategist Ron Bonjean. “He’s showing just how opposite a candidate can be from Rand Paul and leading with his strongest issue. It was a brilliant choice to do this today. It sets up a stark contrast between himself and Paul.”

Graham didn’t mention Paul by name in his speech, but criticized the Obama administration and some of his “colleagues in Congress,” whom he said, “have substituted wishful thinking for sound national security strategy.”

“Those who believe we can disengage from the world at large and stay safe by leading from behind, vote for someone else. I’m not your man,” Graham said. “Those who believe the best way to defend ourselves is to lead the world, to make history rather than be overwhelmed by it, I ask for your support.”

Graham will follow his announcement with trips to New Hampshire, where he has four events planned on Tuesday and Wednesday, and Iowa, where he has four stops booked for Thursday and Friday.