Graham kicks off early test in Iowa

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.

U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham faces his first test this week, whether or not Republican voters in the heartland think he’s White House material.

Graham is scheduled to spend Thursday and Friday in Iowa, which kicks off the presidential primary season with its party caucuses a year from now. He’ll attend several private meetings with influential Republicans in Des Moines, and a meet-and-greet hosted by retired Lt. Gen. Ron Dardis, Iowa’s former adjutant general.

While Graham may be new to the Iowa presidential landscape, he is not a complete stranger to voters in the Hawkeye State, campaigning there last year for now-Republican U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst. After her victory, he famously welcomed her to the Senate by presenting her with a pig castration device mounted on a wooden plaque.

Tim Hagel, University of Iowa political scientist, said there’s likely to be lingering goodwill because of Graham’s support for Ernst but cautioned many continue to associate him with his closest Senate ally, former presidential hopeful John McCain, R-Ariz., who spurned Iowa during his 2000 White House run. He appeared ill-at-ease there eight years later when he tried again.

Victory in Iowa doesn’t necessarily make a candidate a front-runner, but a strong showing can give a campaign a shot in the arm, increasing media attention and donations.

Republican Party activist Jamie Johnson said much of the early questioning for Graham probably will focus on immigration, which is a major point of contention with some in Iowa’s farm and manufacturing belt.

Critics have called Graham “Graham-nesty” for supporting a bipartisan proposal to beef up border security that also would create a path toward citizenship for 11 million undocumented workers.

“A lot of Iowans are predisposed to not like him because of the immigration issue,” Johnson said. “A number of Iowans see him as another John McCain.”

Another Iowa GOP activist, Ann Trimble Ray, however, said Graham’s personality could play well in the state if he sets the right tone and visits the right places, pointing to diners, radio talk shows and local socials.

A first visit by any White House hopeful should be a mix of both policy discussions and one-on-one conversations, Ray added, something that Graham’s folksy, educated and frank manner could easily play into.

“Make a little noise and get a little attention so you get on people’s radar,” Ray also advised Graham.

Polling in Iowa shows Graham has nowhere to go but up. An NBC News/Marist Poll released Sunday put Graham at the bottom of the dozen Republican contenders. Out of nearly 900 Iowa voters questioned, Graham had only a 1 percent following and behind Texas Sen. Ted Cruz at 2 percent. Undecided voters were 14 percent.

In Graham’s favor in the survey, was that military strategy against ISIS — the Islamic State extremists in Iraq and Syria — was considered a top three concern among those questioned. Graham has made national defense his top issue.

University of Northern Iowa political scientist Chris Larimer said the Iowa electorate that Graham will meet this week in many ways resembles South Carolina. About 40 percent of conservatives in the Iowa Republican caucus turnout consider themselves evangelicals or born-again Christians, he said — figures on par with S.C. primary numbers. Geographically, evangelicals tend to dominate in the northwest and southwest corners of the state, he said, with moderates more in the central part, around Des Moines.

While evangelical voters might represent a dominant bloc, in the past supporting candidates such as Michele Bachmann, Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum, Larimer said there is still room for candidates like Graham to carve out a niche among moderates. But more importantly, Larimer said, is that any beginning candidate should bring the message he or she is serious. That means getting outside of Des Moines and touring Iowa’s 99 counties while building a network in its 1,700 precincts.

“That’s really something the voters expect at this point,” Larimer said. “It’s not just doing the big rallies. It’s going into people’s homes and really making that personal connection.”

On Friday, Graham is scheduled to meet with the Iowa press corps. A New Hampshire trip is on the horizon as well.

Reach Schuyler Kropf at 937-5551.