Graham's entry into race could help Rubio, hurt Paul

Graham's entry into race could help Rubio, hurt Paul
© Greg Nash

Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Pass USMCA Coalition - Dems look for traction following Barr-Mueller findings Senate GOP eyes probes into 2016 issues 'swept under the rug' Top Senate Judiciary Dem asks Barr to hand over full Mueller report by April 1 MORE will formally announce his candidacy for president in his hometown of Central, S.C., on Monday, entering the race with the strongest foreign policy resume of any candidate.

Republican strategists give him little chance of winning, but say he could play the role of kingmaker in South Carolina, a crucial early primary state that — with the exception of 2012 — historically picks the Republican nominee.

Graham’s bid is designed to push the muscular foreign policy approach that he and Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainSenate GOP eyes probes into 2016 issues 'swept under the rug' Gallego won't seek Ariz. Senate seat, clearing Dem path for Kelly Khizr Khan blasts Trump's McCain attacks: 'How dare this Russian-tainted president disrespects our hero' MORE (R-Ariz.), his close ally, have advocated for years.

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“That’s a tried-and-true, time-tested method of getting your pet issue into the conversation. If Lindsey were from Kansas, I don’t think many people would care, but because he’s from South Carolina, and that will alter the dominoes in the early primary, people have to pay attention to him,” said Rich Galen, a GOP strategist.

He is running as an antagonist to fellow Republican Sen. Rand PaulRandal (Rand) Howard PaulSenate GOP eyes probes into 2016 issues 'swept under the rug' Hillicon Valley: Mueller delivers report, ending investigation | FEMA exposed info of 2.3M disaster survivors | Facebook asks judge to toss DC privacy lawsuit | Trump picks his first CTO | FCC settles lawsuit over net neutrality records Transparency advocate says government agencies face 'use it or lose it' spending MORE (R-Ky.), who criticizes hawks in his own party for the rise of ISIS and wants to shut down the National Security Agency’s bulk telephone data collection program.

Graham has called for 10,000 American “boots on the ground” to stop the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, demanded that Iran renounce terrorism as part of any final nuclear deal, and pronounced himself “glad” that the NSA is collecting phone records.

“It contrasts two longstanding trends that have been with the Republican Party a hundred years. The Republican Party has always been a leader on national security, foreign policy and defense. On the other hand, there’s always been a libertarian streak to it, and even at one point an isolationist streak,” said former New Jersey Gov. Tom Kean, who was chairman of the 9/11 Commission.

Sen. Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioSenate GOP proposes constitutional amendment to keep Supreme Court at 9 seats McConnell blocks resolution calling for Mueller report to be released publicly Trump UN pick donated to GOP members on Senate Foreign Relations panel MORE (R-Fla.), Paul’s rival, could wind up as the biggest beneficiary of Graham’s candidacy. His national security and immigration positions mirror Graham’s and he is focusing his resources on South Carolina, viewing it as a springboard to Florida, a pivotal winner-take-all primary state.

Graham jumps into the contest at a time when GOP voters are increasingly concerned about national security and the growing strength of Iran and ISIS.

Seventy-seven percent of Republican voters rank foreign affairs as important to their presidential vote, a significantly higher proportion than among independents, according to a recent Gallup poll.

“We can’t be shutting down the NSA. We can’t be making up these phony stories about the government spying on Americans. You can’t be blaming the United States for ISIS,” said Rep. Pete King (R-N.Y.), the former chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee. “Rand Paul is the main guy I’m talking about.”

King said Graham would bolster more hawkish candidates such as Rubio, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

“The emphasis up front is going to be on foreign policy,” he said. “That’s a fight for the heart and soul of the Republican Party. You will find for the most part Marco Rubio and Lindsey Graham on the same side on security issues.”

Kean said Graham has the most foreign policy and national security experience of any Republican candidate.

“I don’t know of any other candidate who has had the interest or the experience. He has made that his issue over a number of years in the Congress,” he said.

Graham, a former Navy JAG, will make his presidential announcement at 10:30 a.m. on Central’s Main Street, in front of the building where his parents used to own a restaurant, bar and poolroom. Graham sold the business after his parents died when he was in his early 20s, leaving him to care for his teenage sister.

He will then campaign in New Hampshire on Tuesday and Wednesday before traveling to Iowa for events on Friday and Saturday. Thursday will be devoted to fundraising.

He has backing from a super PAC being set up by his former deputy chief of staff, Andrew King, and Caroline Wren, a longtime Graham fundraiser.

Ford O’Connell, a GOP strategist who worked on McCain’s 2008 presidential bid, said Graham could become a major player just by virtue of being in the race.

“He has a real chance to be kingmaker in South Carolina, given how crowded this field is. He could also wind up turning this into a Cabinet position, should the Republicans win the White House,” he said.

Graham could be a force in South Carolina, but being from the state doesn’t guarantee him a victory, strategists say.

“He of course has high name ID and a huge group of grassroots supporters in South Carolina. That being said, South Carolina’s not going to give him a pass. They’re going to evaluate him as a presidential candidate, not just as a senator,” said Andrew Boucher, a Republican strategist based in South Carolina.

A major challenge for Graham will be making the 10-candidate cut for the first debate of the GOP primary, hosted by Fox News and scheduled for Aug. 6. If the debate were held this week, Graham, who is polling at between 1 and 2 percent nationwide, wouldn’t be on the stage.

If Graham pulls out before the South Carolina primary, his endorsement could provide a significant boost to a rival.

O’Connell said South Carolina may wind up as the second-most important primary, given its position ahead of all-important Florida.

“Rubio is putting a lot into South Carolina,” O’Connell said, adding that Rubio wants to perform well in either New Hampshire or South Carolina before squaring off against former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush in the Sunshine State.

South Carolina is expected to host its primary on Feb. 20, the third contest after Iowa on Feb. 1 and New Hampshire on Feb. 9.

Some Republicans say Graham has a narrow path to victory if he finishes in the top three in New Hampshire and goes on to win his home state, building valuable momentum.

“If he makes a decent showing in New Hampshire, then you’re on the way to South Carolina,” Kind said. “That could make up the difference as far as numbers, as far as approval, because he will get a lot of attention in South Carolina. If he wins South Carolina, then he’s a major factor.”

“He’s got a better chance than people recognize right now because some of these frontrunners are not going to be frontrunners in another six months,” Kean said.