Lindsey Graham’s entrance last week into the Republican scrum for the White House was greeted by enthusiastic chants of “U-S-A, U-S-A” from the hometown crowd who turned out for his announcement in Central.
Political observers who watched South Carolina’s senior U.S. senator said he touched all the right bases, from idolizing Ronald Reagan to sniping at President Barack Obama’s foreign policy and identifying radical Islam as a global threat.
But there wasn’t a breakout or signature moment last Monday, likely leaving Graham at the same place in the GOP pecking order that he was in before his formal kickoff — near dead-last in most national and early state polls.
“I thought it was a well-orchestrated and even touching event,” said University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato. ”But it’s had zero impact.”
Graham’s announcement didn’t get much play on the evening news shows, which Sabato attributed in part to it coming amid a flurry of other Republicans and Democrats announcing their candidacy.
“Graham has a lot of work to do. If he doesn’t qualify for the debates I don’t see how he moves up,” Sabato said.
Graham was the ninth Republican to officially enter the race for the GOP nomination, followed by former Texas Gov. Rick Perry later in the week. The rest of the presumed GOP candidates are expected to declare by the end of July.
Graham followed up his announcement with return trips to Iowa, where candidates face their first test in the state’s caucus, and New Hampshire, which holds the nation’s first primary.
In Iowa, Craig Robinson, founder and editor-in-chief of TheIowaRepublican.com, a blog dedicated to all things GOP in the Hawkeye State, said he didn’t think Graham’s formal kickoff had much of an impact there because Graham doesn’t have the following that others have spent months and years developing.
Several candidates — Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum — had supporters already on the ground from earlier White House runs.
“They’d cultivated interest in Iowa over the years,” Robinson said. “Graham didn’t do that.”
In New Hampshire, the state Graham visited first after his Monday kickoff, one political observer said being the ninth Republican to get into the race didn’t help in generating interest in him as a candidate.
“Initially, voters paid more attention because it was early on,” said New England College political scientist Wayne Lesperance, noting the hype that followed the candidates who were first out of the gate. “Now, it’s easier to get lost in the shuffle.”
Lesperance said Graham’s tale of growing up in a small town behind his family’s bar and pool hall increased interest in him among famously independent New Hampshire voters.
Recent polling, mostly from before his formal announcement, have Graham barely hitting 1 percent, which could disqualify him from the first debates if they are limited to the top 10 candidates.
For some in the national media, Graham’s launch was an opportunity to contrast him with another presidential contender and Senate rival Paul.
Graham, the national security hawk, and Paul, the privacy rights libertarian, have sparred over renewing key provisions of the Patriot Act and the mass collection of Americans’ communication data. Graham was pictured recently rolling his eyes as Paul stood behind railing against the government surveillance law.
The Washington Post noted that Graham’s announcement speech made vague reference to some of the anti-Patriot Act members of Congress, saying some in Washington “have substituted wishful thinking for sound national security strategy.”
“Graham never mentioned Paul by name,” the Post said. “He didn’t have to. The two have been openly fighting for months.”
Reach Schuyler Kropf at 937-5551