Donald Trump might be sucking all the oxygen out of the GOP presidential race, but U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham has locked down a lot of support at home in South Carolina.
The question for Republican Graham’s underdog campaign is: For how long?
On Tuesday, Graham showed he is not planning to call it quits yet, filing at S.C. Republican Party headquarters to run in the state’s Feb. 20 presidential primary and paying the $40,000 fee.
Still, Graham’s campaign has failed, so far, to gain traction. Graham is barely registering in polls in Iowa and New Hampshire and has been slipping in S.C. polls.
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“I've been a little disappointed in his poll numbers,” said longtime Graham supporter Eddie Floyd, a semi-retired surgeon from Florence. “However,” Floyd added quickly, “I'm solidly behind Lindsey. Lindsey is our senator.”
While remaining loyal to Graham and waiting for his campaign to ignite, some supporters have contingency plans in case Graham withdraws.
“I am actively supporting my friend Lindsey Graham,” David Wilkins, a former S.C. House speaker and U.S. ambassador to Canada, said Tuesday. If Graham decides to withdraw from the race, “and that’s a big if,” Wilkins said he will support former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. “I've made that clear for many months,” said Wilkins of Greenville, who is leading a political fund-raising group with ties to Graham.
Surrounded by supporters and campaign staffers Tuesday, Graham addressed the unspoken fears. At this point in the campaign, polls are more about celebrity than they are any true sign of how voters will cast their ballots, he said. “We’re going to compare each others’ resumes, and this silly season of the primary will soon pass, and people will be looking for somebody to defend this nation.”
Holding out for Graham
Some GOP operatives, including ones supporting other candidates, say Graham still has time to make a showing. While his campaign’s lack of momentum is not promising, the race still is six months away from its debut in Iowa.
History suggests they may be right.
Four and eight years ago at this time, the candidates leading in the campaign did not go on to grab their party’s presidential nominations. Around this time in 2007, for example, the eventual GOP presidential nominee, U.S. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., was foundering, having lost two long-time advisers and struggling to gain in the polls.
Graham’s supporters are prepared to “wait this thing out,” said Katon Dawson, an S.C. GOP consultant who is backing former Texas Gov. Rick Perry.
Asked about a Politico article that suggested Graham’s backers are getting “antsy” about his lack of success, without citing specific sources, Dawson challenged that characterization. “Give me the names.”
“It's too early to count any candidate out, including Senator Graham,” said S.C. GOP chairman Matt Moore.
Graham beat six S.C. GOP primary challengers last year. And, in his presidential race, he pushed early for formal support from many of his same S.C. backers.
Graham “could very easily find himself leading the pack when the race comes to South Carolina,” Moore said.
Candidate or kingmaker?
Graham said Tuesday he is looking to strong performances in Iowa and New Hampshire to gauge whether he can win the nomination. “Time will tell whether or not I can accomplish that task.”
The senator also brushed off a question about whether he would drop out of South Carolina’s first-in-the-South primary and endorse another candidate if he fails to break through in Iowa and New Hampshire – states whose nominating contests come before South Carolina’s.
Dropping out and endorsing another candidate could be a way to avoid losing badly at home and inviting S.C. challengers later, said Winthrop political scientist Scott Huffmon.
Graham’s endorsement also would be valued and could land the senator a post in the next administration, if his pick makes it to the White House. But those are long odds, which do not make for smart political strategy, Huffmon said.
Graham said he is running for president to get the job and no other reason. “Why am I running? Because I genuinely believe I am the best qualified to be commander in chief of anyone on both sides of the aisle,” he said. “I have been busting my butt for the last decade trying to understand what makes the world so dangerous. And I understand the military better than anybody running.”
‘Hoping for traction’
Leaning on leftover money raised for his Senate re-election campaign, Graham likely has the money to sustain his presidential bid through his home-state primary and to the March contests, when several other Southern states pick their presidential favorites.
This year, with 17 GOP candidates, those contests may play a more important role than South Carolina in narrowing the crowded field.
South Carolina also tarnished its reputation for picking the eventual nominee when GOP voters picked former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich in 2012 over the eventual presidential nominee Mitt Romney.
On Tuesday, Graham said he looks forward to campaigning in Iowa and New Hampshire, where he has some allies. McCain, the 2008 nominee and Graham’s close friend, “won New Hampshire by doing a hundred town halls. That’s exactly what I’m going to do,” Graham said.
Greenville GOP consultant Chip Felkel said Graham’s supporters “are going to stick with him” at least for now. “As we get closer to New Hampshire, obviously, they've got to be hoping for some traction.”
Reach Self at (803) 771-8658.
Graham’s presidential campaign
At a glance:
Less than 1 percent: Where Graham is polling in national polls of the Republican presidential nomination
4 percent: S.C. Republicans who said they would vote for Graham in the state’s Feb. 20 presidential primary, according to a poll released last week
17 percent: S.C. Republicans who said they would back Graham in a February poll