Sen. Lindsey Graham likes to joke that one of his qualifications for president is having grown up in a bar.
Just listen to the South Carolina Republican’s prescription for bipartisan progress in Washington.
“Ronald Reagan and ‘Tip’ O’Neill had a drink every night,” Graham said at the Iowa State Fair in August. “If I’m president, we’re going to drink more. And after a couple of drinks, we’re going to stop the b.s., and we’re going to work together. If you’re running for president of the United States, you ought to be willing to openly embrace working with the other side if they’ll work with you.”
That willingness to cross the aisle on domestic policy has been a hallmark of Graham’s 20 years on Capitol Hill, where he has joined bipartisan coalitions to tackle issues from immigration reform to judicial nominations.
“When he was elected to Congress, he said ‘I’m going up there to get something done.’ And if it came down to ideology and pragmatism, he’s always been on the pragmatic side,” said David Woodard, who teaches political science at Clemson University and ran Graham’s early congressional campaigns.
On foreign policy, though, Graham has been a sharp critic of the Obama administration and staked out arguably the most hawkish platform among those seeking the White House this cycle.
He has called for at least 10,000 U.S. troops in Iraq, ground troops in Syria and an increase in the size of the nation’s military force. He says he’d negotiate a better nuclear deal with Iran — and if Iran wants a war over it, well, America will win.
The question is whether that blend of domestic compromise and overseas confrontation appeals to GOP primary voters.
Graham, 60, has struggled to garner support; his poll numbers are so low that he has been unable to make a main-event debate stage. Instead, he’s been stuck in the preceding “JV” forums intended for lesser candidates, although he was widely praised for his performance in the second debate, when he capably mixed zingers with a clear command of the issues.
Graham is counting on the power of retail politicking in early states such as Iowa and New Hampshire to boost his campaign. He then hopes to catch fire when the primary contest moves to his native South Carolina.
But even in Graham’s home state, many Republican primary voters have been displeased with his penchant for bipartisan cooperation.
“He doesn’t fit the sort of right-wing, conservative, mad-at-the-world sort of view. So I think people like talking to him, and he gets all the press,” Woodard said. “But that doesn’t mean that he’s really endeared himself to the constituency back here.”
Graham is trying to replicate the playbook put together by his good friend Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who came from behind to win the 2008 nomination, powered partly by winning the New Hampshire primary.
Indeed, Graham and McCain have been on the same side of many congressional fights over the years. McCain has been trekking up to New Hampshire to help Graham spread the word.
“He’s having trouble getting a lot of traction, but I’ve been up there twice, and we’ve done a lot of town hall meetings, and I see that he gets a very good reaction, the same kind of reaction that I used to get at town hall meetings,” McCain told The World-Herald. “And the one beauty of New Hampshire is they take their time making up their minds, so I’ll keep working for him.”
McCain said the many national security crises now confronting America should play to Graham’s strength in that arena. And he said Graham remains entertaining on the stump.
Graham’s ease with people goes back to his childhood, when he would entertain patrons at the family’s Sanitary Cafe — he has described the establishment as “more beer joint than cafe.”
As a kid, young Lindsey would strut around the bar, sometimes in cowboy costume, talking up a storm with the customers.
When he was in college, his parents died within 15 months of each other. He was just 22 and his sister Darline only 13. She went to live with an aunt and uncle, but Graham also helped raise her. He graduated from the University of South Carolina, where he joined the Air Force ROTC, and went on to law school.
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As an Air Force lawyer, he was handling mostly administrative discharges at a time when the Air Force sought to crack down on marijuana use.
Preparing for a case, Graham discovered there were serious problems at the large laboratory responsible for analyzing all of the Air Force’s urine samples. After that, he was switched to defending cases. As a defense counsel, he helped expose problems with the Air Force’s drug testing, which got him interviewed by “60 Minutes” and helped lead to changes in the system.
His next assignment sent him to Europe, where he prosecuted cases of murder, rape, drugs and espionage.
Graham has never been married but says he had two serious relationships while overseas. In fact, he considered proposing to a woman named Sylvia, a Lufthansa flight attendant, but the relationship didn’t work out.
Graham has joked about his bachelorhood, suggesting that if elected president he would have a “rotating first lady.” In a campaign biography, he described himself as simply unlucky in love.
“The opportunity never presented itself at the right time or I never found time to meet the right girl or the right girl was smart enough not to have time for me,” he wrote. “I haven’t been lucky that way.”
After leaving active duty — Graham continued to serve in the Air Force reserves until earlier this year — he became a small-town lawyer. Woodard remembers the first time he saw Graham trying a case.
“He’s the only lawyer I’ve seen who managed to shake hands with everybody in the courtroom before the arraignment,” Woodard said.
He won a state Legislature seat in 1992 before mounting a successful bid for Congress in 1994. He achieved national attention for his work on the Bill Clinton impeachment case, then won a Senate seat.
On the presidential campaign trail today, he highlights his 33 years in the military, and says America faces a few challenges — “too many terrorists, too much debt, too few jobs.”
He says the United States needs to go back to Iraq and “pound these guys into the ground.”
“Bush made mistakes, Obama made mistakes, I’ve made mistakes,” he said. “The biggest mistake we could make is let these guys get stronger over there, because they’re coming here.”
He says he doesn’t know how the Islamic State militants can be destroyed without some Americans on the ground.
“When it comes to radical Islam, whatever it takes, as long as it takes, until they’re defeated,” Graham said, describing his tough approach. “If we don’t do the things I am describing to you, which are hard, the second 9/11 is coming our way.”
On domestic issues, Graham said, the way to get the nation out of debt is by working with Democrats to control spending on Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid through adjusting the age of retirement and implementing means testing.
On immigration, Graham wants to improve border security and enforcement but also advocates for a practical approach to the otherwise law-abiding millions in the country illegally.
“You can stay, but you got to learn our language to stay, you have to pay taxes, you have to get to the back of the line, and you have to keep your nose clean,” he said.
Graham recalls how he and his sister were helped by Social Security survivor benefits after his parents died.
“I am a Republican,” he said. “I believe in limited government, but most of us are one car wreck away from needing somebody to help you.”
The next president needs heart to lead the country, he said.
“There is nothing I won’t do to get this country back on track, including being yelled at by my own party,” he said.
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