U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina said Wednesday that he’ll expect any presidential candidate who gets his endorsement to challenge Donald Trump and Ted Cruz, the two candidates currently leading the contest for the Republican nomination.
The Republican Graham said he hasn’t decided whether to endorse one of his former competitors for the White House, but it won’t be Trump or Cruz because he considers them too extreme to beat Hillary Clinton, the likely Democratic nominee.
Trump, the New York billionaire, “has alienated all the constituencies” that Republicans need to rebuild their party, such as Hispanics, Graham said.
As for Cruz, the Texas senator has been “on three sides of every issue” and “represents a form of conservatism that won’t sell to a larger audience,” Graham said.
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“I think the Democrats would do a number on him as being an ideologue,” Graham said about Cruz.
Graham made the remarks during an interview at his downtown Greenville office two weeks and two days after ending his own presidential bid, which never took off.
“It’s not enough to criticize Obama,” Graham said. “All of us do it. But are you willing to criticize Trump? Are you willing to say Ted Cruz’ approach to immigration is not practical? Are you willing to say -- when Ted Cruz says we’re going to eliminate the IRS -- it’s not going to happen?
“This is really a fight for the heart and soul of the party, and I’m looking for somebody who’s willing to fight,” Graham said.
Spokesmen for Trump and Cruz didn’t immediately respond to emails inviting them to respond to Graham’s comments.
Graham said it’s possible he could endorse any of the other 10 Republicans still in the race.
He volunteered the names of Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, Ohio Gov. John Kasich, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina.
About Rubio, who is polling third behind Trump and Cruz, Graham said he likes his hawkish views on national security and optimistic articulation of political conservatism.
But Rubio is “going to have to prove he’s ready at 44,” said Graham, 60. “I could say I wasn’t ready at 44.”
Graham said he’s drawn to Bush because he’s the only Republican who has mounted a sustained challenge to Trump.
But Bush is “going to have to show viability at the ballot box” in New Hampshire, Graham said.
Graham said South Carolina Republicans have a chance to “reset” the race during the state’s first-in-the-South GOP presidential primary on Feb. 20 by picking a candidate who is more likely to win the general election against the Democratic nominee in November.
“This may be the most important test of the South Carolina primary ever because this race is so screwed up,” he said.
Graham said he’d also want to know about any candidate he’d endorse whether he or she was ready to solve problems, work with Democrats to get the country out of debt, rebuild the military and “lead from the front.”
“If I can find a candidate I can believe in, then I’ll do everything I can to help them,” he said.
Graham said he dropped out of the race on Dec. 21 because he was never able to poll high enough to be eligible for the main stage in televised debates. He decried the selection process, which was based on a candidate’s standing in the national polls.
“The process I think shut down my ability early on to connect with the voters,” Graham said. “I’m not whining about it. It’s just not good.”
Graham said he believes he helped shape the debate on foreign policy and influenced other candidates by his early advocacy in favor of deploying U.S. ground troops in the fight against the Islamic State terrorist group.
Graham said he was alone in taking that position at first, but it became more popular following the terrorist attacks in Paris.
“I think the difference I made is I started a discussion about a muscular foreign policy versus isolationism and events proved me right,” he said.