It was a Lindsey Graham campaign event, but Condoleezza Rice drew the biggest applause.
A crowd of more than 1,000 erupted with approval at the TD Convention Center on Monday – and many rose to their feet clapping – when Graham suggested Rice run for president.
Rice immediately dismissed the idea, but the incident underscored how popular she remains with rank-and-file Republicans more than five years after leaving former President George W. Bush’s administration, where she was national security adviser and secretary of state.
Rice endorsed Graham at the event, saying it was important for the United States to maintain a leadership role around the world “on behalf of free markets and free people.”
“I can’t think of a more important part of getting that done than making sure that we’ve got the right people in the Senate, and returning Lindsey Graham to the United States Senate is a part of that story,” she said.
Graham said he jumped at the chance when Rice offered her support for his campaign as he seeks a third term in the U.S. Senate.
He said a poll conducted by his campaign showed Rice was more popular with South Carolina Republicans than anyone else except Bush.
“We’re close friends, and I think I sort of represent the George Bush/Condi Rice wing of the party,” Graham told The Greenville News just before taking the stage with the former secretary of state.
Graham faces six other Republicans in the June 10 primary. Two Democrats are running for his seat in a separate primary on the same day.
The Graham campaign said more than 1,000 supporters paid $10 each for a chance to hear Rice over lunch.
As they waited for Graham and Rice to take the stage, a huge screen showed photographs of the senator in Clemson University orange and shooting a machine gun.
Greenville native and former CBS anchor Jane Robelot was master of ceremonies, while Greenville attorney David Wilkins, U.S. ambassador to Canada while Rice was secretary of state, was moderator.
Rice, an expert on Russia, was typically hawkish as she sat in a chair on stage with Graham and took questions from Wilkins.
Asked about Russia’s recent invasion of Crimea and subsequent unrest in the Ukraine, she dismissed sanctions imposed on Russia by the Obama administration and said the United States should arm the Ukrainians and re-enforce NATO.
Her appearance served to underscore the foreign policy credentials of Graham, a colonel in the Air Force Reserves and member of the Senate Armed Services Committee who has taken a special interest in foreign affairs and military matters during his time in the Senate and previous service in the U.S. House.
Some of Graham’s Republican opponents complimented Rice when asked for their reactions to her endorsement.
Columbia lawyer Benjamin Dunn said he has “immense respect” for Rice “and the exemplary service she has rendered to this country.”
“But even her endorsement does not erase Sen. Graham's support of President Obama's nominees to the U.S. Supreme Court, nor his inexplicable desire to intervene in the Syrian civil war, nor his support of domestic surveillance programs, nor his votes in support of massive bailouts of Wall Street banks,” Dunn said.
Orangeburg attorney and U.S. Army Reserve colonel Bill Connor said he respects Rice, even if he disagrees with her endorsement of Graham.
“She was secretary of state when I volunteered to join the effort in Afghanistan, and I believed in that foreign policy and the role she played,” said Connor, who was awarded a Bronze Star Medal for service in Afghanistan.
Two of Graham’s Republican opponents – former pastor and lawyer Det Bowers of Columbia and businessman and former anti-abortion activist Richard Cash of Powdersville – declined to comment on Rice’s appearance.
Bowers said he was getting ready to do an interview in Greenwood, and Cash said he was preparing for his own campaign’s barbecue at the Anderson Civic Center on Monday night.
Graham’s “doing an event, and I’ve got my own events to do,” Cash said. “So I’m concentrating on what I’m doing.”
State Sen. Lee Bright of Roebuck said it wasn’t surprising that Graham, as an “establishment candidate,” has supporters who have served in high office.
“I still think he’s at a ceiling of about 48 percent, and if he doesn’t get above 50, then there will be a runoff and I don’t think he survives a runoff,” Bright said Monday evening before going to Zen in downtown Greenville for a campaign event with Larry Pratt of Gun Owners of America.
Another Republican running against Graham, Charleston public relations executive Nancy Mace, couldn’t be reached.
State Sen. Brad Hutto of Orangeburg, one of two Democrats running for Graham’s seat, said Graham is always talking about foreign affairs on the Sunday talk shows as if he were the “junior secretary of state.”
“I think we need to focus the resources of the federal government on what we can do for South Carolina — what we can do to improve our infrastructure, our schools, our ports, our roads — and quit worrying so much about what’s happening in other countries,” Hutto said.
The other Democrat in the race, Jay Stamper of Columbia, said Graham and Rice “should be ashamed of themselves” for playing a role in drawing the United States into war in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“Instead of campaigning together, I suggest they visit some of the South Carolinians who are missing legs or living with (post-traumatic stress disorder) as a result of wars they helped create,” Stamper said.
Rice, an Alabama native and professor of political economy at Stanford University in California, has occasionally made national headlines since leaving office at the end of the Bush presidency.
In 2012, she was one of the first two females invited to join the Augusta National Golf Club, home of the Masters tournament, along with South Carolina financier Darla Moore.
Outside of Republican circles, Rice remains controversial for her part in an administration that invaded Iraq but never found the weapons of mass destruction cited as the reason for the war.
Earlier this month, she decided not to speak at the Rutgers University commencement in New Jersey after students and faculty protested her involvement in the Iraq War and other Bush policies.
Currently, Rice is one of 13 members of the College Football Playoff selection committee, which will pick the top four teams and place schools in contract bowl games beginning with this year’s season.