Lindsey Graham was late. His two-person entourage, modest by presidential campaign standards, had taken a wrong turn somewhere on Route 101 and they were 20 minutes behind schedule. The South Carolina Senator, talking intently into his red flip phone, hustled behind his New Hampshire adviser Paul Young as he arrived for a tour of a Derry plastics facility while his other staffer parked the car.
“Sorry about that guys,” Graham told the three-person crowd. “Benghazi everything today.” Graham snapped his flip phone closed, easing into the task at hand.
“So why am I even here?” he cracked.
Thursday was supposed to be about Benghazi, specifically Hillary Clinton’s hotly-anticipated testimony before a special House committee in Washington. And for all of four minutes in New Hampshire on Thursday night, Graham held forth on the matter that has animated him since the deadly attacks in Libya unfolded in 2012.
“I am very upset with what I heard today,” said Graham, a foreign policy hawk who has been one of the Obama administration’s fiercest critics on Benghazi. “I don’t dislike Secretary Clinton, but I think what she said to those family members was wrong….She sat on the sidelines and let Susan Rice tell a story that was a lie to help the President, and that’s gonna matter for whether or not she is prepared to be our next commander-in-chief.”
“You have to be held accountable,” he said concluding his thoughts on news of the day at the end of his town hall in Derry.
But watching the Senator on the campaign trail, the high-stakes interrogation playing out on Capitol Hill could not have felt more distant. Though he struggles to gain traction in the polls and with the media, Graham nonetheless appears to be having more fun than anyone on the campaign trail — telling jokes, back-slapping and wolfing down “LindseyChick-Filets,” a custom made special at Milford’s Red Arrow Diner, as he attacks Obamacare and the administration’s foreign policy, or lack thereof. The most enthusiastic retail politician in the 2016 field, it turns out, is the guy at two percent in the Republican polls.
“Help me if you can. I’m a start-up business,” the cash-poor Graham told the owner of a new antique store in Milford, one of four stops on Thursday. “I love New Hampshire, it’s just like South Carolina except y’all have an accent,” he added with a gruff chuckle.
The son of small business owners himself — his parents ran a pool hall in the tiny town of Central, South Carolina — Graham’s genial personality and his inclination toward bipartisanship on some issues is often lost in the morbid simplicity of his de facto campaign message: “Kill terrorists and get out of debt.”
In person, Graham isn’t afraid to veer off the script that other politicians stick to.
He’d rather make you laugh than make you cry, wisecrack about drinking, his sorry poll numbers, and Vladimir Putin’s shirtless horseback riding. He routinely invites reporters out to dinner and drinks. And he’s unafraid to talk about being a 60-year old bachelor.
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His casual demeanor can come across to some as a lack of seriousness – one reason he may be stuck in the lower tier of presidential candidates. But spending a day with Graham during his quixotic White House adventure is one of the more entertaining and enlightening ways of experiencing the 2016 presidential race.
On Thursday, one reporter dared Graham to get a haircut at Arthur’s Barber Shop in Milford during the town tour. Minutes later he sat down in the barber’s chair. “Just a trim,” he told the barber as he sat down for a quick cut. “George, don’t screw up, man. Everyone’s watching,” Graham joked.
As he walked the streets of the picturesque New England town, entering any shop that showed signs of life, he welcomed photos and fans, including one with an off-duty ambulance driver enjoying a 3pm margarita. And he exchanged plenty of fist bumps – multiple ones with a hardened marine who was about to ship off to Fallujah.
It wasn’t all light-hearted. Graham is also a three-term U.S. Senator who has put himself smack in the middle of the some of the country’s biggest policy fights, from immigration reform to health care to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. At Resin Manufacturing in Amherst, New Hampshire, Graham went into what he described as the perils of owning a small business under Obamacare.
“Temporary employment is better than no employment but it’s an industry that’s growing because employer compliance with healthcare regulation taxation is driving people out of the full time market,” Graham said to Resin’s management during a roundtable discussion. “Have you thought about reducing hours to 30 hours? And you probably don’t want to do that because it really hurts family income. These people are part of your family I’m sure,” Graham continued.
Later, in Milford, Graham lingered in a woman’s jewelry and clothing store during his walking tour, admiring the work ethic of a young woman who works seven days a week to keep her dream store up and running. “For young women in the Middle East, this is my hope for them,” he said. “That they can have a place like this one day with micro-lending. That’s the key.”
Later that night, after answering a call on his red flip phone from Senator John McCain mid town hall only to yell “Bye!” into the phone before clamping it shut again, Graham couldn’t help but mention how charming he is on the stump.
“You know why I’d be a good president?,” he said to the Derry crowd. “My background, judgment and experience of foreign policy is second to none. But part of it is also my disposition.”
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