Graham steering clear of conservative forum

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.

White House hopeful U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham is skipping this week’s gathering of conservatives near the nation’s capital, possibly to avoid a confrontation with far-right activists after being portrayed as too liberal in last year’s primary.

Graham’s office said Tuesday he’s not planning to attend the annual Conservative Political Action Conference, one of the largest national Republican assemblies of the year, regularly drawing more than 10,000 people and many presidential hopefuls. This year, that includes former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and former Texas Gov. Rick Perry and about a half-dozen others.

Many consider it a must-do event for those in the GOP with higher political aspirations.

Graham’s office didn’t say why he isn’t attending the forum, which traditionally attracts participants from the far-right wing of the party, many from early voting states.

Winthrop University political scientist Scott Huffmon said Graham’s decision to pass on the event is probably so he can avoid a situation where conservatives might openly confront him.

“If he goes to CPAC, he’s going to be in rooms of voters who wanted to take him out and who would be hostile to him,” Huffmon said.

Graham is “popular with Republicans in general,” Huffmon added, “but within his party, he is the least popular with the folks who go to CPAC.”

It’s not unprecedented to skip the event. Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee also isn’t going to CPAC this year; he’s visiting Southern states this week on a tour that has three Friday stops in South Carolina, including Columbia and Greenville.

Other expected CPAC no-shows are House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and Senate Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. Both cited priority issues in Washington.

U.S. Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., who had a lead-off speaking time last year, isn’t taking part this year because of a scheduling conflict, his office said.

Other scheduled attendees include Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina, former Sen. Rick Santorum, developer Donald Trump and retired neurosurgeon Dr. Ben Carson. All have been mentioned as possible White House candidates.

Much of the thrust of this week’s convention, which runs from Wednesday through Saturday and includes a straw poll on the presidential candidates — will be on organizing at the grass-roots level. This is the 30th installment of the annual conference sponsored by the American Conservative Union. It will be held this year at the Gaylord Resort Convention Center in National Harbor, Md.

Charleston County Republican Party Chairman John Steinberger, who is attending the conference, called it a good opportunity “to kick the tires” on what the potential White House field has to say, alongside what others are saying about them.

Graham, meanwhile, will be in Washington this week and does plan to make at least one speaking appearance. On Wednesday morning, he is scheduled to speak at a Bloomberg-sponsored forum on global trade and the Export-Import Bank. The gathering will draw more than 500 suppliers and manufacturers from across the country.

His office sent out a statement of regret Tuesday on missing CPAC.

“Sen. Graham is disappointed to miss this year’s gathering but I’m sure he will be spending a great deal of time with conservative activists in South Carolina, Iowa and New Hampshire in the coming months,” the statement said.

Reach Schuyler Kropf at 937-5551.