The tradition of declaring a debate “winner” has had mixed results. President Barack Obama “won” very few, or none, of the debates that presaged his defeat of Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination. Sen. John McCain’s, R-Ariz., 2008 comeback was made in New Hampshire town halls, not the debates.
Yet the hunt is forever on for someone to break out of a debate, and for a few minutes Wednesday, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., finally had his moment. The somnolent Washington Brahmin who showed up in Cleveland had been banished, replaced by a punchy, witty senator who resembled the one with permanent residence in cable news green rooms.
The problem: Graham only had 10 or so minutes between his debate “victory” and the prime time debate, at which Carly Fiorina was expected to shine. He wrung everything he could out of those minutes. Graham bounded from the debate stage, and a group photo, to a spin room where he was finally mobbed. He swatted away questions with the confidence of King Kong downing biplanes.
Q: What was his strategy?
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“Just to be myself. Just to talk about winning the war. We can destroy ISIS but we’ve got to change our strategy.”
Q: Would Ronald Reagan win an election in today’s Republican Party?
“He would be accused of amnesty, because he did give amnesty. Ronald Reagan tried to solve problems – there’s an element of our party that would drive Ronald Reagan out.”
Q: Could Graham defeat Bernie Sanders?
“Bernie’s a pacifist. One thing I’ve said about Bernie is that you can give him your cell phone number, and it'll be okay.”
Q: Did Graham have a message to the Russian people? (This question came from a Russian TV reporter who, by luck or design, spent the whole time right next to Graham.)
“To the Russian people: You have a leader that is ripping you off.”
Q: What’s your cocktail of choice?
“Whatever the other guy wants. I ran a bar. My dad ran a bar. The first thing you ask is: What do you like?”
Q: What’s next?
“I watched John McCain. I saw how he came back. I’m gonna do a hundred town halls in New Hampshire. We’re not quitting – people in the military can’t quit.”
Q: Why can’t the government find and deport undocumented felons?
“The bill that I’ve supported increases penalties every time you get into the country. If you’re a felon, there’s an amazing increase in penalties. I’m all for busting their ass.
The best example of Graham’s temporary mojo came when Luke Rodkowski, a relentless independent video reporter who got his start asking politicians whether they would support a new 9/11 investigation, chased after him with questions about whether neoconservatives had armed foreign fighters. “They’re using our weapons,” he said.
But Graham, for the first time all campaign, was in heavy demand and had to run. Former RNC chairman Michael Steele said he did so well that he might have earned a spot on the main debate stage, before conceding that 11 candidates was unwieldy enough.