U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham's decision Monday to drop out of the presidential race set off a scramble in South Carolina, as other contenders for the Republican nomination vied for supporters and donors in the state that hosts the first southern primary two months from now. Graham has represented the Palmetto State in Congress for two decades.
"For a lot of folks, they are breathing a sigh of relief, so that they can throw their support behind someone else, without being disloyal to Senator Graham," said Adam Temple, a Republican strategist who worked for John McCain’s South Carolina presidential primary campaign in 2008.
After months of lagging in the early state and national polls, Graham announced his decision, first reported by CNN, on his campaign website.
"Today I am suspending my campaign," he said in the video, which includes implicit criticism of the Republican field that he's abandoning. One of the reasons he got involved in the race, Graham said, was to "turn back the tide of isolationism rising in our party."
The South Carolina State Election Commission set Monday as the deadline for candidates who want to stay off the ballot for the Feb. 20 presidential primary. After the deadline, state officials had said there was no way to guarantee that a candidate's name won't appear on the ballot.
That almost certainly added pressure for Graham to make a decision on whether it was worth continuing his long-shot bid in the face of a potentially embarrassing showing in his home state.
His exit will make it easier for South Carolina Republicans to side with one of the remaining candidates, both in terms of endorsements and financial contributions. Out of loyalty to Graham, many had either backed him or remained on the sidelines.
Temple said he expects it won't take long for donors and elected officials in South Carolina to move to other candidates. "A lot of folks had a second or third choice in mind, so I think you will see that happen pretty quickly," he said.
If the senator decides to back one of the remaining candidates in the race, Temple said it could be very helpful because Graham has a "very effective" political organization.
Other Republican establishment candidates, including Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and former Florida Governor Jeb Bush are likely to win over the small amount of support Graham had, said Republican strategist Ron Bonjean.
"His supporters will likely go to Rubio, Christie or possibly Bush," he said. "The consolidation of the establishment field is more important than ever, in order to effectively take on Donald Trump, who has cornered the market with blue-collar voters."
Rubio issued a statement praising Graham and noting his often present humor on the campaign trail. "Lindsey is a good guy, a very funny guy," Rubio said. "We will miss his humor on the campaign trail. We look forward to hearing more of it on the Senate floor."
After a campaign event in New Hampshire, Ohio Governor John Kasich also praised Graham. "He's a good guy," he said. "He worked really hard. And I wish him all the best."
On CNN, Graham said he'll support the Republican nominee, even if it's Trump, who he's clashed with on the campaign trail. Asked if he thought the billionaire real estate mogul could beat Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton, Graham said, “No, without some major adjustments.”
His exit from the race comes on a day when President Barack Obama, in an interview released by National Public Radio, praised him as the one Republican who delivered a "serious" alternative for fighting the Islamic State.
Graham, who retired this year from the Air Force Reserve, made the fight against Islamic terrorism the center of his campaign. He called repeatedly for deploying more combat troops to the Middle East and criticized Obama for not being more aggressive in the fight.
He also spoke strongly against members of his own party, especially Donald Trump, the front-runner. But Graham was never able to gain traction in the polls and has been relegated to the non-prime time "kiddie table" Republican debates, an overflow setup created to accommodate the large number of Republicans in the field.
"I regret that I haven't been a better candidate," Graham said in a exit interview with CNN. But he acknowledged that his was always a "long shot bid."
A Bloomberg Politics/Des Moines Register Iowa Poll taken earlier this month showed Graham recorded with less than 1 percentage point of support in the state that will cast the first votes of the presidential campaign on Feb. 1.
Graham's announcement came days before the presidential campaigns close their fundraising books for the fourth quarter of 2015; many of the campaigns are frantically engaged in year-end fundraising pleas.
The senator's fund-raising efforts paled in comparison to other Republican candidates and the super political action committees supporting them. His presidential campaign raised a total of $4.8 million through Sept. 30 and had a $1.65 million in cash on hand at the end of the third quarter, according to filings with the U.S. Federal Election Commission.
By comparison, retired surgeon Ben Carson had a raised a total of more than $31 million this year through the end of the third quarter and had $11.3 million in cash on hand. Bush's campaign finished the third quarter with $10.3 million, while a super PAC supporting him announced it had more than $100 million as of June 30.
A protégé of another Senate maverick, McCain of Arizona, Graham has taken similarly iconoclastic positions within his party. A staunch conservative who, as congressman in 1998, was a member of the U.S. House team that prosecuted then-President Bill Clinton unsuccessfully for impeachment, Graham has nevertheless taken positions to the left of his party's center on immigration reform and climate change.
At an appearance before the Republican Jewish Coalition earlier this month, he castigated fellow Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz, a U.S. senator from Texas, for proposing an abortion ban that allows no exceptions for victims of rape and incest. "Good luck with that," said Graham, an opponent of abortion, predicting that it could cost the party at the polls.
In 2010, Graham teamed up with then U.S. Senators John Kerry, a Massachusetts Democrat, and Joe Lieberman, a Connecticut independent, to draft a bipartisan bill to move the nation away from fossil fuels. The effort fell apart, and Graham's bipartisanship cost him support from some Republicans in his home state, though he ended up handily winning re-election to a third term last year.
Graham's ongoing feud with Trump, whom the South Carolinian has described in some folksy terms that can't be printed in full in a family publication, has provided some of the livelier moments of the campaign. At one point, Trump took revenge by reading out Graham's cellphone number at a campaign rally. That led to Graham upping the ante with a mock-video about destroying the phone, produced by the conservative on-line publication Independent Journal.