The one factor driving Lindsey Graham into the GOP race

With the entry of the South Carolina senator, the Republican presidential field swells to nine.

Charlie Neibergall/AP
Sen. Lindsey Graham, (R) of South Carolina, speaks during the Iowa Republican Party's Lincoln Dinner, May 16, in Des Moines, Iowa.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, one of the Senate’s most experienced defense hawks, has one motivating factor behind his long-shot candidacy for the Republican presidential nomination: It’s a dangerous world out there, and he wants to do something about it.

That, and he wants to neutralize Rand Paul.

“I’m running because of what you see on television. I’m running because I think the world is falling apart,” the senator from South Carolina said in an appearance on “CBS This Morning” last month.

He says, for instance, that the US needs to increase its troop level in Iraq from 3,000 to 10,000 in order to reverse gains by the Islamic State.

But does the crowded field of Republican presidential candidates really need one more national security hawk?

With the exception of Senator Paul, the libertarian who forced the expiration of surveillance provisions under the Patriot Act on Sunday, the skies are thick with GOP raptors promoting a robust foreign policy.

Chief among them is Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, who recently staked out that territory in a speech at the Council on Foreign Relations. Senator Rubio, the son of Cuban immigrants, is a member of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations and has made national security his signature issue.

With the Islamic State making gains in Iraq and Syria, China flexing its maritime muscles in Asia, Russia on the prowl in eastern Europe, and the outcome of an Iranian nuclear deal uncertain, national security challenges look more formidable than even a few years ago. The outlook has forced even the cautious Paul to change some of his positions.

But even so, foreign policy alone is not usually a winning issue in an election. It’s jobs and the economy that tend to drive presidential elections.

Senator Graham, who is announcing his candidacy in his hometown of Central, S.C., on Monday, is not deterred.

“What I'm best known for seems to be on the mind of voters, so that's a pretty good coming-together of a profile of a candidate and the issues of the day," said the folksy Graham at fundraiser on Capitol Hill in March.

Unusual for a senator, Graham holds another title: colonel in the US Air Force Reserve (though he announced his retirement last week). He’s served in some capacity as a lawyer and judge in the Air Force for more than three decades, both at home and abroad. 

Combined with his years on the Senate Armed Services Committee and his many trips overseas (he's just back from Israel), that puts him head-shoulders above his nearest foreign policy rival, freshman Senator Rubio – at least in terms of experience

Quite simply, Graham is the “most qualified” of the candidates when it comes to national security, says Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona, of his best friend and colleague on the Senate Armed Services Committee, which Senator McCain chairs.

Conversely, said McCain in an interview Sunday, Paul is the “least qualified.”

It’s an opinion that both McCain and Graham state openly about Paul, who has called them part of a group of “lapdogs” of President Obama. Ratcheting up his rhetoric about Graham, Paul said last week that “ISIS exists and grew stronger because of the hawks in our party.” Graham’s “epic eyeroll” during Paul’s disruption of surveillance legislation several days ago became its own C-Span video clip.

“I have a theory about Lindsey Graham … I think he’s basically running to be the anti-Rand Paul,” says Kyle Kondik, of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics in Charlottesville. “Graham wants to make sure that Paul’s ideas are snuffed out.”

Like the Democrats’ Bernie Sanders, Mr. Kondik says Graham is a “message candidate” who can influence debate but has no real chance of winning the nomination.

Graham may be well known among some Republicans, but not for the right reasons, he says. Tea party folks and evangelicals don’t like him because of his habit of working with Democrats – backing Obama’s Supreme Court picks, for instance, and working on bipartisan immigration reform (dubbed “Grahamnesty” by some). At one point he even worked across the aisle on greenhouse gas legislation.

Being a potential “favorite son” in the early primary state of South Carolina is unlikely to help the third-term senator in the long run, says Kyle.

“Even if Graham were to win South Carolina, where does he go from there? Generically, he’s just not a popular guy.”

Graham sees his bipartisan history as an asset at a time when Americans decry a dysfunctional Washington. He also can tout his “bootstraps” story to struggling Americans: He grew up in the back room of his family’s bar and pool hall, lost both his parents while he was still in college, and legally adopted his 13-year-old sister to care for her.

Still, a foreign policy theme – even with a compelling personal story – is not enough to carve out a path to the presidency, agrees political analyst Stuart Rothenberg, of the nonpartisan Rothenberg & Gonzales Political Report. 

“I don’t see a path for Lindsey Graham. I don’t see a path for three-quarters of the people in the race,” says Mr. Rothenberg.  “But that doesn’t stop them.  And apparently he wants to talk about it.”

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