Vowing to be competitive despite dismal poll numbers, U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina brought his hawkish foreign policy-driven campaign to Rock Hill on Wednesday in an attempt to steer the Republican nomination for president away from the bombast of Donald Trump and toward facing down Islamic extremists and keeping the military strong.
Radical Islamic terrorists, Graham told a group that included many retirees at the Mayflower Restaurant, “would kill everybody in this room” if given the chance.
Graham, 60, a U.S. senator since 2003 and the only South Carolinian running for president among 17 Republicans, has had no surge since announcing a run for his party’s nomination. In the lunch speech in front of about 50 people, Graham said poll numbers right now are a “popularity contest” but the party needs serious discussions about problems in the country only he is talking about.
Islamic terrorists, Graham said, must be stopped with ground troops in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan.
“If we don’t have a line of defense over there, they (terrorists) are coming here,” Graham told the group.
Graham called the Obama administration’s deal with Iran over nuclear capabilities “a nightmare in the making” that in 15 years will leave the Iranians, who he said are religious fanatics and sponsors of terrorists, with a war machine that will be pointed at the United States.
Graham’s hawkish military stance, his tough-guy approach with Russia, China and other countries – but his statement that as president he must be willing to work with Democrats –resonated with Wednesday’s group of potential voters.
Vietnam War veteran John Young said after the speech that Graham is right that troops on the ground is the only alternative to dealing with terrorists.
“I hate war, but we have to do it,” Young said. “I like what he said about national defense.”
Others such as Marty Sanocki and her husband, Joseph, said they, too, agree the terrorist threat from abroad requires a strong leader and Graham is willing to be that tough leader.
“I think Mr. Graham would be a great president; he is (a) charismatic young man – but I wish he was even a little tougher and stronger against the other candidates,” Marty Sanocki said.
And although Graham made some news last month by smashing his cellphone in a video after Republican frontrunner Donald Trump gave out Graham’s number, Graham has languished far behind other candidates –so much so, he was not on stage when the 10 Republicans leading in the polls appeared on Fox News’ debate last week watched by 24 million people, the highest ratings for a debate in primary season history.
Graham vowed to stay in the race by being consistent and make it to the final “four or five” Republicans with a strong showing in the early 2016 primary states of Iowa and New Hampshire, and then his home state of South Carolina. But if Graham does not do well in the early states, he said publicly Wednesday, he will re-evaluate his campaign.
After breakthroughs in Iowa and New Hampshire, “I’ll win South Carolina,” Graham said.
Graham said the Rock Hill stop was put together with just a day’s notice and the crowd was not huge. Rand Paul and Scott Walker – polling far ahead of Graham – campaigned in Rock Hill Friday and Sunday and drew far larger crowds.
In Republican presidential politics, though, Trump has dominated the discussion, and Graham did bring up Trump’s name Wednesday.
Trump “doesn’t make a whole lot of sense” and has alienated half the country’s voters, Graham said.
Graham received a laugh when he said, “Trump is not wrong on everything” when he says there is a trade imbalance with foreign countries, but Graham made it clear Trump’s comments about immigrants, women and others have harmed the party and are in danger of assuring a Democratic president in 2016 “will clobber us” if Trump gets the nomination.
“For the Republican nominee to win the White House, you can’t be angry,” Graham said. “The American people are not looking for an angry man or woman, they are looking for someone to bring us together. It’s hard to bring America together when you are insulting half the country.”
Trump continues to lead by a huge margin in polls despite inflammatory comments about women and Mexican immigrants.
“We are killing ourselves with Hispanics,” said Graham, who has taken heat from conservative Republicans over not calling for full deportation of 11 million illegal immigrants while espousing those people getting “in the back of the line” as staying in the country “on our terms.”
Yet Graham said the other Republican candidates have shrunk away from challenging Trump’s bombast and divisiveness and that only he is willing to take on Trump before Trump destroys Republican chances and sends Hillary Clinton to victory in 2016.
If the other candidates aren’t willing to take on Trump, Graham said, he doesn’t want them in the “same room with the Ayatollah” dealing with world problems and national security.
Andrew Dys: 803-329-4065