Afterward, Graham insisted that he had come with a different speech in mind. Waiting backstage, he was listening to the opening speaker, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), and blanched when Cruz handled a question about how he could reach out to voters who were not pro-life. The RJC, whose membership is generally less socially conservative than the average Iowa town hall, got a standard Cruz answer about how he would win by energizing conservatives.
"I'll tell you the context in which I'm most likely to discuss life, and it's the Little Sisters of the Poor," said Cruz, referring to a Catholic charity fighting against an Affordable Care Act birth control mandate."We focus on values that unify us."
Graham, who had been ready to give a foreign policy address, hit the stage intending to debunk Cruz. "It was the way he dodged the question about how you get pro-choice people to vote for you," said Graham to reporters afterward. "I think I'm a pro-life person. I think I can get plenty of pro-choice people to vote for me. I think if you have no exception for rape and incest, which he wouldn't talk about, it'll be hard to convert."
From the stage, Graham accused Cruz of giving Republicans a fairy story, in which the media would be so bedazzled by his talk of religious liberty that it would not be able to portray him as right-wing on abortion. False, said Graham: With a Cruz nomination, the election would "be about rape" because Democrats would make it so.
"I believe that you can be pro-life and win an election," he said. "But if you are going to tell a woman who has been raped she has to carry the child of a rapist, you’re losing most Americans. Good luck with that.”
Graham kept swinging, saying that Mitt Romney had lost the 2012 election in part because he endorsed the concept, furthered by immigration reformers in Arizona and Alabama, of the undocumented "self-deporting" thanks to harsh laws.
"Now it's not self-deportation, it's forced-deportation!" said Graham. "We're literally going to round them up. That sound familiar to you? Deport them, and their American children. You think you're going to win an election with that garbage? If you think it's about turning out more people and keeping us on this path, you're setting us up for oblivion."
The not-too-veiled reference to the Holocaust worked as intended, and Graham got some of the best press of his campaign so far. A week that had started with speculation about whether he'd quit the race before a Dec. 21 South Carolina deadline (after that point, anyone on the ballot must stay on) ended with a positive Huffington Post story about Graham telling Republicans to "get real" on abortion.
"Hooray for him," said Mickey Edwards, a former Republican congressman who speaks frequently on the party's need to move to the center. "One of the things that I've been most concerned about is that Trump is an idiot, and he's a blowhard, but the number of people in the party who have not been willing to call out Trump or Cruz about this really hateful rhetoric is just negligible. I was never a big Lindsey Graham fan, because I thought he wanted to declare war on everybody, but I liked this."
Graham's lecture had meaning for candidates he did not even name. Democrats, who generally see Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) as a strong potential nominee, are confident that they can turn his no-exceptions abortion stance into a deal-breaker with moderates.
Still, when Graham moved on to foreign policy, he reminded reporters and RJC members that he was nobody's liberal. "ISIL loves Donald Trump," he said, "because he is giving people the opportunity to turn people their way."