Sen. Graham floats 2016 bid, dismisses Rubio as ‘afraid of the right’

U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) speaks after his victory in a primary election in Columbia, S.C., on June 10, 2014. (Jeff Blake/The State/MCT)
U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) speaks after his victory in a primary election in Columbia, S.C., on June 10, 2014. (Jeff Blake/The State/MCT) MCT

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., says fellow Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., is “not quite ready” to become president of the United States, but Graham hinted that he himself might be.

In an interview with the conservative Weekly Standard, Graham in one fell swoop dissed his Senate colleague and dipped his toe into what could be a crowded 2016 Republican presidential pool.

Graham told the publication that he could envision entering the presidential race if no other Republican candidates address the national security and foreign affairs concerns that he and fellow hawkish Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., are raising.

Both have been consistent critics of President Barack Obama’s handling of Syria, Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Russia, and whether or not to shutter Guantanamo Bay, where foreign terrorism suspects are currently housed.

“If I get through my general election,” Graham, who’s running for a third term this fall, told the Weekly Standard, “if nobody steps up in the presidential mix, if nobody’s out there talking – me and McCain have been talking – I may just jump in to make these arguments.”

It’s the immigration issue that prompted Graham to take a shot at Rubio in the interview. Both men were members of a so-called “Gang of Eight,” a bipartisan group of lawmakers who crafted an immigration bill that included a pathway to citizenship for the nation’s estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants.

The legislation passed the Senate but stalled in the House of Representatives. As House members and conservative groups, such as the Heritage Foundation, railed against the bill, Rubio withdrew his support and spoke more about securing America’s borders. That was too much for Graham.

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

Neither Graham’s nor Rubio’s offices responded to phone calls or emails Friday seeking comment.

After beating four Republican Senate primary challengers, Graham holds a commanding lead over Democratic hopeful Brad Hutto. A Winthrop University Poll released Wednesday showed him ahead, 46.3 percent to Hutto’s 28 percent.

But does that lead in the Palmetto State translate into a Ready For Lindsey 2016 movement nationwide? Hutto doesn’t think so.

“It’s questionable whether Lindsey Graham could get elected president of his own fan club,” Hutto said in a statement.

Still, by floating his name in the interview, Graham joins a long list of Republican potentials that besides Rubio includes former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and Sens. Rand Paul of Kentucky and Ted Cruz of Texas.

“Can I imagine him being the nominee?” University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato said. “The answer is that it would take some imagination.”

Dante Scala, a University of New Hampshire political science professor, said Graham would be the longest of long shots in the state that traditionally hosts the nation’s first primary.

“Voters don’t know him and I don’t think activists are looking to find him,” Scala said. “He’d be down the list of centrist Republicans behind Jeb Bush, Christie and (Mitt) Romney,” the GOP’s 2012 standard-bearer.

When he thinks Graham, Sabato said, he sees McCain, who was the 2008 Republican presidential nominee. Both men are fixtures on Capitol Hill and the Sunday news shows. Like McCain, whose 2008 primary campaign ran on financial fumes, the quotable Graham could generate free media in early primary states by running a McCain-like “Straight Talk Express” campaign.

And like McCain, Graham would face resistance among some conservatives and tea party supporters who question his conservative credentials and balk at his support for a comprehensive overhaul of the nation’s immigration laws.

“That’s what the tea party would say,” Sabato said. “Been there, done that. We went along with McCain, we went along with Romney. Look at what we got: Obama.”