Graham kicks off campaign

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., gives a thumbs-up on Monday as he greets supporters in his hometown of Central after announcing he is running for the Republican presidential nomination.

CENTRAL — After months of flirting with entering the crowded race for the Republican nomination, U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham made it official Monday — he’s running for the White House.

Graham returned to his hometown of Central to make the announcement. Speaking outside the building that once housed his parents’ bar and the family’s home, he stressed the need to keep the country safe from radical Islam, which he said has been “running wild.”

Before introducing Graham to the crowd of about 300 and the media throng, his sister, Darline Graham Nordene, spoke about his personal side, how he cared for and adopted her after their parents died when she was a teenager.

“Lindsey was always my parent,” Nordene said during a separate interview. “He’s kind of like a brother, a father and a mother all rolled into one. Even when my parents were alive, they were so busy running their small business ... even before they passed away he was truly my caregiver.”

Graham told the enthusiastic crowd, waving his campaign signs, everything he is and will be is due to the kindness, generosity and example set by the people of Central, Clemson and other Upstate towns.

He then dived into why he’s seeking the Republican nomination for 2016.

“The world is exploding in terror and violence, but the biggest threat of all is the nuclear ambitions of the radical Islamists who control Iran,” Graham said. “I am running for president because I have the experience, judgment and will to deny the most radical regimes the most dangerous weapons.”

He listed China and Russian President Vladimir Putin as “old adversaries” who are “seizing new opportunities to challenge our interests.” America’s allies feel the absence of the country’s leadership, Graham said.

Unlike some Republicans who have rejected compromises in Congress, Graham said he is willing to reach across the aisle and work with Democrats because his “friends in the other party” were his fellow countrymen, not the enemy.

He took a jab at the Democrats’ front-runner, Hillary Clinton, saying he has more national security experience than any other candidate, “and that includes you, Hillary.”

To Republicans, he promised to be a champion for limited government and a strong national defense.

“I intend to be president not of a single party, but of a nation,” Graham added. “I want to do more than make big government smaller. I want to help make a great nation greater.”

Graham also said he would support a “safe and healthy environment,” push for energy independence and fix programs such as Social Security. He said not enough workers are paying into Social Security, suggesting that retirement ages might have to be adjusted for younger workers.

That message resonated with 17-year-old Aidan Bish of Central, who will be eligible to vote in next year’s election. Bish, who comes from a military family and routinely watches C-Span, said she was inspired by Graham’s speech.

“I love his message,” Bish said. “I love his stance as commander in chief and I love his background.”

Also in the crowd was Letha Cothran, who attended D.W. Daniel High School a few years ahead of Graham. She asked Graham to autograph a campaign sign as he shook hands and posed for pictures with people in the crowd.

“I think that he covered my issues, which is the safety of the country and standing with Israel,” Cothran said. “I think he’d be a strong leader.”

Former state House Speaker David Wilkins, who was among the speakers who introduced Graham, said he was impressed by the enthusiasm of the crowd. He said he believed Graham would fare well in the state’s Republican primary, noting he’s won every race he’s entered in South Carolina, before winning his seat in Washington.

“The folks here love Lindsey Graham,” Wilkins said. “He’s our hometown guy. Nobody works harder than Lindsey Graham. I think he’ll do quite well.”

Graham easily won re-election last November in a three-way race after fending off six challengers in the Republican primary. Graham has been criticized by tea party and other conservative activists for being too liberal and too open to compromise on issues such as immigration.

Republican Gov. Nikki Haley did not attend Graham’s announcement but issued a statement that said South Carolina should be proud that one of its native sons has entered the race for the White House.

“South Carolina voters are an independent bunch — some will support Sen. Graham, and some will not,” Haley said. “But regardless of where our support goes, Lindsey Graham has earned our gratitude and our good wishes as he begins his campaign today.”

Reach Cynthia Roldan at 708-5891.