Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice stumps for Lindsey Graham

Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, shown here speaking before the California Republican Party 2014 Spring Convention in Burlingame, Calif. appeared Monday in Greenville at a fundraiser for U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham. AP Photo/Ben Margot, File

GREENVILLE - Former Secretary of State and Sanford University professor Condoleezza Rice lent her star power to a packed fundraising luncheon here today to help re-elect a Senator who strongly supported her work under President George W. Bush.

Rice was the featured speaker at U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham's campaign event that drew almost 1,000 people to the TD Convention Center, just three weeks before Graham faces off against six GOP challengers in the June 10 primary.

She sat next to Graham and spent 45 minutes answering questions about Iran, Russian President Vladimir Putin and the economy, a discussion moderated by Greenville lawyer and former U.S. Ambassador to Canada David Wilkins.

More than half of the crowd stood and applauded when Graham said Rice should run for president.

Former CBS This Morning co-anchor Jane Robelot of Greenville referred to a recent controversy in her introduction of Rice, who decided against speaking at Rutgers University's commencement after students protested her selection.

Robelot said Rice should know Greenville "is a place she always will be able to come and receive a warm, hospitable, thankful welcome," and Rice did.

The program focused on foreign policy - Rice's specialty and one of Graham's favorite subjects to talk about as a Senator - but it began on a light note, as Wilkins noted Rice has been appointed as one of 13 electors under the new college football playoff selection committee.

"I've done a lot of controversial things in my life," Rice joked, "this might be the most controversial thing I do."

Rice said it is important for the United States to lead globally, and be willing to sacrifice as it did in World War II, or there will be a power vacuum filled by extremists, civil wars and Russia, which she called "a great power behaving badly."

Rice recounted her conversation with Putin, who told her his nation only excelled under strong leaders like Peter the Great and Alexander II. "I spent a lot of time with Vladimir Putin, and Vladimir Putin is somebody who, not to put too fine a point on it, loves to intimidate," she said. "He will go as far as we will let him go."

Rice also said Iran is a threat because it oppresses its own people, seeks to change the Middle East's balance of power and wants a nuclear weapon. She and Graham expressed strong doubts about President Obama's pending deal with Iran. Graham called it the issue that "keeps me up at night."

"(Current Secretary of State) John Kerry is a nice man, but I wouldn't let him buy me a car," Graham added. "He's a terrible negotiator."

Graham also said the Republican party needed to do more to reach out to Hispanic voters and said its immigration reform positions have hurt that. He said many Hispanics agree with the GOP's economic positions, but "it's hard to listen to your economic platform if I think you're going to deport my grandmother."

Graham also said the GOP has "a branding problem" and needs to do more to tell voters across the country what it supports, not just what it opposes, like Obamacare.

Jim Thomson of Greer only learned about the event Monday morning but decided to come.

A Small Business Administration appointee under President Ronald Reagan, Thomson said he moved here from Iowa five years ago and has not been able to vote for Graham before.

"What I've seen of him is very positive," said Thomson, whose late wife served three terms in the Iowa legislature.

Judy Hussein of Irmo, whose husband immigrated from Egypt in 1985, said she made the trip here to volunteer for Graham because of his fiscal conservatism, family values and foreign policy.

"Unless we show we are strong, no one will respect us," she said, adding she has travelled extensively in the Middle East. "Lindsey Graham has enough nerve to stand up and say what he thinks."

Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771.