Graham bets on foreign experience in White House bid announcement

Updated 5:50 PM EDT, Mon June 1, 2015
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Story highlights

Lindsey Graham hopes to run for president on his foreign policy credentials.

Graham trails the GOP pack badly, polling at just 1% in some surveys.

(CNN) —  

Lindsey Graham is running for president because, he says, “the world is falling apart.”

And if Americans are looking for a commander-in-chief, the South Carolina senator believes he’s it.

Graham, who told CNN last month he’s been “more right than wrong on foreign policy,” announced his presidential bid in his hometown of Central, South Carolina, on Monday. He hopes that his track record on foreign affairs will give him the advantage in a wide-open primary fight.

“I want to be President to defeat the enemies trying to kill us, not just penalize them or criticize them or contain them, but defeat them,” he said at his kickoff event.

The timing could not be better for Graham, a national security hawk announcing his candidacy on the day a key provision of the Patriot Act expired in large part because of Sen. Rand Paul, another Republican running for president. He becomes the 9th Republican to enter the field.

Related: What happens now that Patriot Act provisions have expired?

Paul and Graham are foils in their party and represent an internal struggle for the soul of the GOP.

But Graham still barely registers in the polls. A Quinnipiac University survey out last week gave him 1%, and he did just 1% better than that in an April CNN/ORC nationwide poll.

RELATED: Lindsey Graham retires from Air Force ahead of likely 2016 bid

He’s banking his long-shot bid on his deep well of experience and long history of speaking out on global threats, experience that he believes is both unmatched and invaluable in a race where foreign policy is certain to take center stage. Of all the nearly two dozen Republicans running or contemplating a run, most are governors with relatively little experience in foreign affairs or young senators with a much shorter track record.

And Graham’s hoping that expertise, peppered with jokes delivered in an easy Southern drawl, will be enough to help him overcome conservative skeptics wary of his willingness to work with Democrats and his moderate position on immigration reform.

A close friend of John McCain – who often jokes that Graham is his “illegitimate son” – the South Carolinian is no stranger to presidential politics, having campaigned for the Arizona Republican during both of his presidential runs. He’s likely to have the favor returned; three of Graham’s top campaign staffers are veterans of McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign, and he’s been talking up Graham’s prospects for months.

But for all of McCain’s chatter, Graham has yet to break out in the pack.

His advisers acknowledge their first and most urgent task is to introduce the candidate to voters.

Foreign policy chops

Where Graham needs no catching up on is foreign policy, which he and advisers are banking on as the top issue in the race.

“There is no one in this race who was the length of experience and the record working on these issues, who has been a more stalwart advocate for a strong national defense, than Lindsey Graham,” said Jon Seaton, who’s slated to be Graham’s national political adviser, told CNN.

Graham emerged as one of the Senate’s leading foreign policy hawks and has the resume to back it up. He spent more than six years as an active-duty Air Force lawyer and will retire next month from the Air Force Reserve after more than 30 years of service.

He currently chairs three military, foreign policy and terrorism-related Senate subcommittees, has served on three others in the past, and has sponsored dozens of bills on foreign policy. Graham has also, by his own count, traveled to two dozen countries on official business and met with the leaders of many of them.

Graham was one of the first senators to call for boots on the ground to fight ISIS and is an outspoken defender of government surveillance programs currently under scrutiny.

He’s a loud and persistent critic of what he sees as the Obama administration’s weakness globally, which he charges has invited foreign threats, like Russia and ISIS, to take advantage.

He supported the troop surge in Iraq, has called for sending military aide to help Ukraine stave off the Russian annexation of Crimea and has been sharply critical of the Iran nuclear deal, though he’s worked to pass a bipartisan bill requiring congressional approval for a final deal.

But he’s already got competition in the foreign policy space.

Graham’s advisers nearly universally (and without prompting) mention Sen. Marco Rubio in discussions of their candidate’s foreign policy chops. It’s an unspoken acknowledgment that in the absence of a stronger alternative, the Florida Republican, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has made strides establishing himself as the most credible Republican candidate on foreign policy.

But they expect that to change once Graham jumps in.

And Graham’s already hinted that Rubio is on his mind. He’s taken shots at the senator as inexperienced in the past, telling The Weekly Standard last fall that his experience working with Rubio on immigration reform told him all he needed to know about the Floridian.

“He’s a good guy, but after doing immigration with him – we don’t need another young guy not quite ready,” Graham said. “He’s no Obama by any means, but he’s so afraid of the right, and I’ve let that go.”

Former Sen. Rick Santorum, who served on the Armed Services committee during his time in Congress and ran a program at a think tank focused on the threat of radical Islam, is also angling to run on claims of strong foreign policy credentials. Santorum declared his presidential candidacy last week.

Conservative skeptics

Graham’s foreign policy experience may stand on its own. But his moderate positions on climate change and immigration reform will need some explaining in a GOP primary fight.

As a member of the so-called “Gang of 8” that pushed an ultimately unsuccessful immigration reform bill through the Senate in 2013, Graham will have to answer for his support for a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. Unlike Rubio, who’s shifted on the issue, Graham never backed down from the bill, and in fact, he’s gone further, supporting access to Social Security benefits for undocumented immigrants in the past.

He’s also spoken out on climate change, calling for “soul-searching” within the GOP on the issue.

“Can you say that climate change is a scientifically sound phenomenon, but can you reject the idea you have to destroy the economy to solve the problem is sort of where I’ll be taking this debate,” Graham promised during a speech this past March.

They’re positions that could trouble him in Iowa, with its deeply conservative GOP primary electorate and its sizable farming population. He could even struggle in his home state of South Carolina – an early primary state – against candidates with a similar profile, and polling has shown him in third place there.

His advisers acknowledge he’ll need to finish in the top three or four in Iowa and New Hampshire to have a rationale for staying in the race when his hometown face-off comes around.

But they point to his improbable 2014 re-election win, where he easily defeated six conservative primary challengers, as evidence his campaigning abilities will help him bring skeptical conservatives around.

Graham is well aware of the challenge; in fact, it may be a selling point for him to run. He said in a recent interview with Yahoo News that he thinks it’s important to always challenge himself to be better.

“For me to go to the next level, I’ve got to even go further out of my comfort zone. I’m going to be in a widely attended primary process if I run, and in many ways I’ll be the odd guy out on certain issues,” Graham said.

“I just gotta stand my ground and take what comes my way,” he said.