U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham’s humor and national security message won CNBC’s Wednesday debate for long-shot GOP presidential candidates, the network’s pundits said immediately after the candidates cleared the stage.
Graham positioned himself as tough on foreign policy, criticizing President Barack Obama as “incompetent” and tying former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the Democratic frontrunner, to the president’s policies.
“To the Chinese, when it comes to dealing with me, you've got a clenched fist or an open hand. You pick. The party's over for all the dictators. Make me commander in chief and this crap stops,” Graham said.
Grham’s performance earned plaudits from the GOP’s 2012 presidential nominee. “After hearing @LindseyGrahamSC talk foreign policy tonight, it's clear he belongs on the big stage,” Mitt Romney tweeted.
Polling at 1 percent nationally, Graham joined Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, former New York Gov. George Pataki and former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania on the debate stage, a chance for the underdogs to reach a national audience and, possibly, gain momentum. The 10 leading GOP candidates debated in a prime-time Wednesday.
Graham was aggressive, talking over the moderators, and conversational, raising his voice often. He steered clear of statistics and pushed his personal story of losing his parents in college and depending on Social Security benefits.
Questioned about his belief in climate change and support for immigration reform – policies that have earned him the scorn of some GOP activists – Graham defended himself.
“We're going to fix immigration only if we work together,” he said. “I want to secure the border because if we don't, we're going to get hurt and hit again. ... As to the 11 million, I want to talk about fixing the problem. We're not going to deport 11 million people and their legal citizen children. But we will deport felons. And those who stay will have to learn our language to stay.”
The audience laughed and applauded Graham, who said he could work with Democrats but then took a jab at that party’s presidential frontrunners.
“I am trying to solve a problem and win an election. I'm tired of losing. Good God, look who we're running against,” he said, mocking Clinton and U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders.
Graham has said if he does not perform well in the New Hampshire primary in early February, he will re-evaluate his candidacy. After the debate, Graham said he “did well. You just gotta do the best you can. I don't think I'm an undercard candidate.”
McClatchy’s David Lightman contributed.