KAMAS, Utah — At 6 on Saturday morning, a ruddy-faced senator packed about two dozen potential campaign donors into vans and led them to a flat range here, high in the Wasatch Mountains, to shoot skeet.
“This is a cruel game, guys,” Lindsey O. Graham warned, grabbing a shotgun and lining up with several others to take their positions.
The men — along with a few women, including news anchor Katie Couric, whom Graham coached with extra attention — fired at orange clays, one after another. The senior senator from South Carolina did not do so well. He blamed the early hour.
Nevertheless, Graham explained his philosophy for shooting skeet, which, as is often the case in such situations, doubled as his philosophy for running for president.
“It’s about letting the pigeon run into the shot,” he said. “If you shoot over the pigeon, you’re not going to hit it. If you shoot under, you won’t. . . . ‘Don’t shoot yourself in the foot’ is the first goal of shooting skeet, and the first goal of politics is to just survive.”
In this chummy phase of the presidential race, Graham, 59, is proving to be the chummiest of a large and expanding Republican field. A long shot at best — he registers as a blip in the polls — Graham relishes being in the spotlight and a part of the debate. He wisecracks on the cattle-call circuit and texts punchy one-liners to GOP moneymen from his old-school flip phone. His impish campaign-trail humor leaves almost everyone in stitches.
“Isn’t Lindsey hilarious?” Ann Romney gushed the other day.
But Graham’s campaign is not merely about jokes. He’s focused on national security and global threats such as the Islamic State terrorist group, using his megaphone to keep the Republican Party balanced on the hawkish right.
“Look, I’m running to talk about serious things, to talk about ISIL. I want people to listen. I also don’t want them to slit their wrists when they hear what I have to say,” he said in an interview this week in nearby Park City, where he attended 2012 GOP nominee Mitt Romney’s annual donor summit and ideas festival.
On the road, Graham maintains a low-key presence. Waiting for his Delta flight to Utah, Graham browsed a newsstand at Washington’s Reagan National Airport. He glanced down at a pile of books by Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), his foreign-policy foil, but didn’t pick one up. He turned instead to the glossy magazines. When a reporter asked what he was buying, his eyes lighted up and he held up copies of People and the Economist.
“I’m a man of the people and of the world,” he quipped.
At the luxurious Stein Eriksen Lodge for Romney’s conclave, he impressed donors with his zest for political combat, quick wit and sharp policy critiques – not only on national security, but also on domestic issues.
Graham spoke emotionally about the need for comprehensive immigration reform, especially a pathway to citizenship, and said he thought Romney’s rhetoric in 2012 alienated Hispanic voters. “I love Mitt,” he said, but “that was the big mistake.”
As much as they enjoyed Graham’s presence, some GOP financiers said they have a hard time imagining him in the Oval Office.
“Politics is like most sports. You’ve got to be loose in the huddle. If you want it too badly and you’re swinging for the fences, you tighten up,” said Anthony Scaramucci, a prominent investor who is backing Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker. “But what’s weird about presidential politics is that you need that and you need gravitas. People need to see you as the president.”
Graham has been courting Romney’s network. About a month ago, he met with Romney intimates — former Bain Capital partner Bob White and former Massachusetts lieutenant governor Kerry Healey, among others — at the Boston offices of Spencer Zwick, Romney’s former national finance chairman. They had lunch catered from the nearby Flour Bakery. Zwick came away informed and entertained. “He’s going to add a lot of personality to a sometimes otherwise boring process,” he said. “John McCain always says, ‘If I need to smile, I talk to Lindsey’ — and he’s right.”
McCain is Graham’s closest friend in the Senate and an enthusiastic supporter in the 2016 race. During McCain’s 2008 run, Graham stumped at the Arizona senator’s side — and appears to have absorbed his bag of tricks. Graham recycles stock jokes and loves quoting from movies. His favorite is “Casablanca,” but he tends to cite lines from popcorn flicks like the Will Ferrell comedy “Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby.”
Graham does not write out his jokes or solicit zingers from staff. “It’s situational comedy,” he said in the interview. His mind works fast, he said, and he simply looks for ways to poke fun at himself — adjusting, of course, to his setting or host.
Last week, Graham’s lifelong bachelorhood made headlines when he suggested he would have a “rotating first lady.” So when he addressed the Romney gathering, he teased the former nominee: “We tried tall, good lookin’, smart, nice, great family. Vote for me. We’re not going down that road again!”
Reince Priebus, chairman of the Republican National Committee, said Graham is reveling in his candidacy. He recalled their joint appearance at a recent Silver Elephant Dinner in South Carolina, where Graham playfully said that when Priebus was elected chairman, it made him think the GOP had “elected a car, a Toyota Prius,” a hybrid vehicle loathed by a number of conservatives.
Graham also learned from McCain to embrace the press. He occasionally ends days on the campaign trail by inviting reporters to join him for a glass of riesling.
Walker and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) came and went from the Romney retreat without saying a word to reporters. Over a day and a half, Graham held three media availabilities and 10 one-on-one interviews.
“The first thing I’m going to do as president is restrict the number of media outlets,” he said with a wink as he wandered through the media workspace.
Friends say Graham’s humor comes from his difficult early adulthood, during which his parents died. Jokes helped him make light of the pain he and his younger sister experienced. Later, serving in the military and as a trial lawyer, Graham honed his skills. Well-delivered jokes with a little Southern charm, he learned, can kill with a jury.
On Saturday, at the gun range, Graham was asked how he would determine success if, as the polls predict, he doesn’t win the nomination. His answer: “That I’m the same guy afterwards that I was before.”
“If I fall short,” he said, “it’s because I fell short being Lindsey Graham.”