U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham said Friday that he quit the race for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination last month because he saw no clear path to the upper tier of candidates, some of whom — Donald Trump and Ted Cruz — he sees as toxic to the GOP.
The Seneca Republican regularly was named the winner of the GOP race’s “undercard” debates, which featured lower-polling candidates. But not getting on the main debate stage killed his chances to win greater support, Graham said.
Graham thought that if he could make the top three in the New Hampshire primary polls, he could have won the next GOP contest, in his home state of South Carolina.
But Graham said he had a difficult time competing against a front-runner, New York billionaire Trump, who was getting so much free media attention. Graham also blamed the primary cycle’s emphasis on national polls, which he said hurt his chances since he came from a smaller state.
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“The people giving me money were in the camp of, ‘I don’t know if you’re going to win, but I’d like you to win,’ ” he said. “I don’t think anybody signed up believing that I would be the frontrunner. ... There was a potential for me. If I could have ever caught on, my donor based would have grown exponentially.”
Graham did not provide a timetable on endorsing another GOP presidential candidate.
“No. 1, will my endorsement matter?” he said. “I’ve got to see what, if any, damage I have done to myself here at home.”
Graham knows he will not endorse the top two national front-runners, Trump or Cruz of Texas. He thinks their harsh, uncompromising views divide the party, driving away potential supporters.
“Everything we learned for the 2012 election, he has ignored,” Graham said of Trump. “What Mr. Trump is doing is making it hard for us to reconnect with constituencies we’re having problems connecting with — young women and Hispanic voters.”
Graham said Cruz is an ideologue, willing to shut down the government over the Affordable Care Act, who has shifted his position on immigration.
Even with all her baggage, Graham predicted Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton will “eat their lunch” if Trump or Cruz is the GOP nominee.
Graham said he likes former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, a former front-runner who has collected the bulk of Graham supporters in South Carolina.
The senator said U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, the Florida Republican running third in polls nationally, needs to show voters he can lead the country as a 44-year-old, first-term senator. But, Graham added, Rubio is the best-spoken candidate in the GOP field.
Graham said voters need to be careful in selecting a commander-in-chief: “You’re picking the leader of our military with your vote. Use it wisely because you’re stuck with the choice.”
The senator said he thinks his candidacy succeeded in pushing candidates to consider sending more U.S. troops to help battle ISIS, a touchy issue earlier last year.
The 60-year-old Graham also said he liked running for president enough to consider another shot in four years. “I think I’d be a good president.”
For now, he plans on returning to the Senate to help broker deals on immigration reform and economic reform. “I’m in the problem-solving business.”