Senator Lindsey Graham announced his campaign for president on Monday, emphasizing his centrist challenge to the Republican Party's base.
"I intend to be president not of a single party, but of a nation," Graham said in a speech in his hometown of Central, S.C. "I want to do more than make big government smaller. I want to help make a great nation greater."
Graham's speech finishes a months-long exploratory process, one that found the Republican bantering with town hall audiences and baiting rivals into fights on foreign policy and immigration. Polling in single digits, joking about his chances, Graham combines the candor of a dark-horse candidate with the media profile of a front-runner.
He left little doubt as to his intentions during a May interview on CBS This Morning: "I'm running because I think the world is falling apart. I've been more right than wrong on foreign policy," he said.
Graham, 59, joins three younger Senate colleagues—Ted Cruz of Texas, Rand Paul of Kentucky, and Marco Rubio of Florida—in the Republican nomination fight. (Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders is seeking the Democratic nomination.) Elected in 2002 to replace the retiring Strom Thurmond, and previously elected to four terms in the House of Representatives, he is likely to have the longest Washington resume of anyone on the Republican stage.
He's also the only declared candidate with a military record, having been a judge advocate in the United States Air Force since 1982. Last week he announced he would leave the reserves as he reaches the mandatory retirement age of 60 this summer.
Since the January launch of his exploratory committee, Security Through Strength, the possibility of a Graham bid has been a puzzle. His is a resume not calculated to appeal to Republican primary voters. Graham's early Washington career was defined by the impeachment of President Bill Clinton, a case on which he served as a prosecutor, which quickly came to look like a debacle for Republicans. In the Senate, he's advocated for an aggressive foreign policy and strong security state even as his party's libertarian tendency has grown. And every time legislation to change immigration policy moved in the Senate, Graham was a co-sponsor.
"We are going to solve this problem," he told the National Council of La Raza in a 2007 speech. We're not going to run people down. We're not going to scapegoat people. We're going to tell the bigots to shut up."
Talk like that infuriated conservatives. In 2008 and 2014, Graham's enemies searched for credible primary challengers. Both times, they came up far short, and convinced Graham that the fringe could bark but not bite. In 2010, he predicted that the Tea Party would "die out." After securing his 2014 victory, he seemed to be proven right.
"There's a growing element in our party that would like me to speak up," Graham said earlier this year in an interview. "Where is the Republican Party on problem solving? Is there a rational way forward on immigration? Do you deport 11 million people? I don't think so."
Wry and affable, Graham's approach to presidential politicking owes much to his friend and mentor John McCain. In 2000 and 2008, Graham campaigned hard for the Arizona senator, who was running for president. In the Capitol, both men share an open-door approach to the media and a hunger for deals with Democrats. Graham shares McCain's readiness with a joke and talent for TV debate.
"In debates, he'll shred 'em," McCain said when Graham announced his exploratory committee. "He has my all-out complete support."
Graham may be kept out of the first Fox News debate, in August, which the network intends to limit to the top 10 candidates according to national public polling. Despite his steady presence in green rooms, Graham's focusing more on the New Hampshire primary than any "national" race. Like McCain, Graham is looking to prove that he can reason with the Republican primary electorate one room at a time. Alone among the candidates, he favors laws that would limit campaign spending–an issue that boosted McCain in 2000.
When challenged on immigration, he enters into a Socratic dialogue with audiences, to convince them that reform and pathways to citizenship are sensible but not amnesty.
And like McCain, Graham is a hawk whose confidence is not dimmed by events. "I think the world is falling apart," he often says, "and I've been right more than wrong." Graham supported the 2003 invasion of Iraq and the 2007 military surge, and has insisted that the conflict was won, a victory squandered by Barack Obama. He favored a more muscular intervention in Libya than the no-fly zone favored by the Obama administration, and favored an early military intervention on the side of Syria's rebels.
Graham's foreign policy contrasts completely with that of Rand Paul, and the two men have sparred across the primary states. Paul tends to avoid using Graham's name when he refers to "a senator" who favors NSA surveillance and treating captured terrorists as enemy combatants. Graham has no such filter, and has said that Paul "would have the worst chance of anybody to make a case against Barack Obama’s foreign policy."
That confidence grows out of a personal story that Graham has become more comfortable telling on the trail. Born in Central, near Greenville, he worked at a pool hall and was compelled at an early age to take care of his younger sister. "My mom's disease, Hodgkin's disease, wiped us out financially," Graham told Fox News in April. "We eventually lost our businesses. I understand we're all one car wreck from needing help. But what it told Lindsey Graham, above all else, is that family, friends and faith really do matter."
In politics, since winning a state legislative seat in 1992, Graham has defended the existence of the welfare state while arguing for reform. Raising the Social Security retirement age, like an immigration overhaul and foreign policy, has been a focus of Graham's early pitch. He starts with less support than McCain–but unlike the Arizonan, he hails from one of the GOP's vital early primary states.
"Get ready," Graham told a dinner audience in his native South Carolina last month. "Get ready for a debate that's been long overdue within the party. Get ready for a voice that understands you can't save America without someone willing to sacrifice and die for America."
Graham holds undergraduate and law degrees from the University of South Carolina. On Sunday, while the Senate debated the Patriot Act, he officially retired from the Air Force reserves, which he joined while attending school and caring for his sister in the absence of his late parents.
"There are a lot of so-called 'self-made' people in this world," Graham planned to say in Central. "I'm not one of them. My family, friends, neighbors, and my faith picked me up when I was down, believed in me when I had doubts. You made me the man I am today."