DES MOINES, Iowa — Lindsey Graham, whom everyone agrees is one of the longest of the long-shot candidates, has a plan.
He will focus to an unusual degree on foreign policy, betting that his hawkish views on national security will carry him through months and months of a long primary.
“The key to me is Iowa and New Hampshire: Can I get people to buy into what I’m doing on national security and problem solving?” Graham told BuzzFeed News in an interview at the Linn County Fair in Iowa on Saturday. “I’m a social and fiscal conservative, but I’m talking about things that we need to do as a nation.”
“There are more terrorist organizations with capabilities to strike the homeland than any time I’ve seen since 9/11,” Graham said. “The next commander-in-chief needs to be ready to go on Day One to deal with that threat.”
After a season of wins for liberals, Graham is among those Republicans who appear to be ready to cede fights on social issues and stick to their guns on more sellable conservative views on, for example, national security. During his Iowa campaign swing, he repeatedly told conservative voters that he is against the idea of a constitutional amendment defining marriage as being between a man and a woman, that flying the Confederate flag over the South Carolina state capitol is wrong, and that the 11 million undocumented immigrants in this country should not be made to leave — a stance that led to an uncomfortable moment at one campaign stop.
But on national security, Graham is as much of a pure hawk as anyone, and he devotes large portions of his stump speech to it. Radical Islam, he tells them, is “running wild” and is coming to our shores. The Obama administration is getting close to signing a nuclear deal with Iran that, Graham warns, could very well end up with Iran obtaining a nuclear weapon. Our ally, Israel, has been abandoned. In order to restore order to the situation in the Middle East, we must commit more troops to the effort in Iraq.
“The only way you’re going to destroy and degrade (ISIS) is by going on the ground in Iraq and Syria to do it,” Graham told BuzzFeed News. “That means some of our soldiers have to go back over there to integrate within regional armies.”
“I think most voters believe they would kill us if they could, that (ISIS) wants to do things we can’t allow — they want to destroy Israel, they want to purify their religion, and kill every Christian they can find in the Mideast, and it’s not good for us to allow that to happen,” Graham said. “I think most voters realize that radical Islam has to be fought, not compromised with, they realize that some of us have to go back to do the fighting, they would insist that the region up its game, so would I.”
There’s “an appetite in this country to stop radical Islam before it comes here.”
Running for president doesn’t always mean you really want to be the president. Graham is a nonentity in polling, and though he’s campaigning hard, he must know his chances are slim to none. But he clearly wants to influence the debate over national security within his party, where libertarians like Rand Paul have posed an ideological challenge to the hawkish establishment. Graham has years of experience in the Senate dealing with foreign policy and national security, and recently retired after over 30 years as an Air Force lawyer.
And pushing these issues can also unlock something that could change the equation for Graham entirely; according to two sources recently, Republican casino magnate and mega-donor Sheldon Adelson and his wife Miriam are considering supporting Graham during the early part of the race. They have supported Graham’s Senate campaigns in the past, and Adelson attended a March fundraiser in Washington for Graham’s pre-campaign exploratory committee, Security Through Strength.
“They understand that Lindsey can’t win,” said one person close to the Adelsons. “I think he believes that he is going to be well positioned to be Secretary of Defense or Secretary of State. My guess is Sheldon’s thinking is, This doesn’t actually upset the apple cart. It gets pro-Israel issues out there and in the debate, and it positions Lindsey well for being Secretary of Defense or Secretary of State.”
Adelson “wants to wait and then support the nominee” unlike last time when he wounded Mitt Romney by supporting Newt Gingrich, that source said. “But Lindsey doesn’t upset that, because Lindsey is not really running for president like the other guys are running for president.”
Asked if he believes voters care more about national security this election than other elections, Graham said he did, and that “if they don’t, we’re crazy as a nation.”
Polling does show that the threat posed by ISIS weighs heavily on the minds of influential Iowa caucus-goers. A Des Moines Register poll from May showed that 90 percent of voters polled wanted candidates to talk about terrorist groups like ISIS. That same poll showed that 73 percent thought that the statement “The U.S. must have indisputably the strongest budget, therefore the Pentagon budget should be increased” was “about right” — another figure that tracks with Graham’s position on strengthening the military.
And voters on the trail this weekend appeared to largely agree with Graham.
“I agree with everything he said,” said Darlene Block, 72, a voter who attended Graham’s meet-and-greet in Centralia, Iowa, on Saturday. “Our military is really down, they said, to the lowest it was since World War II, so we need to straighten that out.”
“It’s a big concern, it’s a serious matter,” said Arvid Saele, the treasurer of the Dubuque County Republican Party who was at that event, said when asked about Graham’s focus on foreign policy. But he said he’s “not certain it ranks as high as it should” in the minds of Iowa voters.