Graham, whose family owned a bar in Central, S.C., took to the evening with aplomb, posing for pictures and joking with the journalists and activists who'd RSVP'd. Egged on by CNN's David Chalian and Dana Bash, he poured pints and shots for party attendees.
"To the Donald!" Graham said, after pouring several rounds of Jack Daniel's and joining in a toast.
Shortly thereafter, Bash conducted an interview that veered between jokes and pathos. The altitude of the city (5,430 feet above sea level) and the potency of the spirits loosened the evening considerably; Graham, who does not typically hold his tongue, dished about diplomatic trips, mocked his 2014 primary opponents, and praised the ability of Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and former secretary of state Hillary Rodham Clinton to hold their liquor.
"John and Hillary were drinking, toasting; they were with others I won't name because they have political futures," Graham said. "I don't drink very well, as you can tell from behind the bar. I was drinking water, pretending it was vodka. I had to go to the bathroom, before they stopped drinking."
Bash concluded the lighthearted part of the evening with a game. "There is a fun bar game, which I will clean up, because we are in mixed company, and on television," said Bash. "So, I'm going to call it: Date, marry, or make disappear forever."
There were laughs and murmurs from the audience. The game Bash was referring to had an unprintable name; "make disappear forever" was a stand-in for "kill," and "date" was taking the place of a word that, in Bash's words, "rhymes with truck." The choices were Hillary Clinton, Carly Fiorina, and Sarah Palin.
"You don't want me to do the Mormon thing here," said Graham, an apparent reference to plural marriage.
"Date, marry, or make disappear forever," said Bash. "Take your time, senator."
Graham, a natural wit, found his way around the question. "Date" came first. "Sarah Palin -- we'll go hunting on our first date," he said. Next was "marry," an easy joke set-up.
"Carly, because she's rich," said Graham.
When Bash pressed, and asked Graham if he would erase the existence of Hillary Clinton, he was ready with the punchline.
"No, but is she rich? She said she was flat broke."
The game ended there, and Bash moved on to Graham's opinion of the debate rules that had stuck him in little-watched "undercard" contests.
"I think it sucks," he said. "The whole concept is flawed. With all due respect, I know there are a lot of us running, but I don't think I'm an undercard candidate when it comes to national security. I think I've got something to offer. And polling, at this point, is based on celebrity or soundbites. If you had a TV show, you'll do better than someone who didn't have a TV show."
Despite everything CNN had just inflicted upon him, Graham had some praise for the network. Its undercard debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library had featured a live audience. Fox News's debate, in Cleveland, had not.
"The problem was that we were in an arena built for 30,000 people, and no one was there," Graham said. "You'd tell a joke, and no one laughed. Kind of like right now."