Steinhauser: Lindsey Graham takes off the gloves against Rand Paul
CONCORD - Sen. Lindsey Graham says if launches a bid for the White House, "my best opportunity to get momentum running for president is in New Hampshire."
And the three-term senator from South Carolina doesn't mince words when it comes to possible 2016 rival Rand Paul, telling NH1 News that "I don't believe quite frankly that Rand Paul's politics on foreign policy are a whole lot different than Obama. In many ways they're one step behind leading from behind."
Graham stopped by NH1's studio on Thursday morning, as part of his third visit to the first-in-the-nation primary state since launching a presidential exploratory committee earlier this year. Wednesday evening, Graham spoke at a town hall meeting of Strafford County Republicans in Barrington, telling the audience that "I've got an independent streak in me very much like your license plate."
Later he headlined a Belknap County GOP meeting in Belmont where he was invited back to the attend their May 29 Lincoln Day presidential sunset cruise on Lake Winnipesaukee.
Graham joked with NH1 News that "if you see me up here in May, it probably means I'm running," then adding seriously that "we'll let you know in May what we're going to do."
Graham, who served in the Air Force and the South Carolina Air National Guard before first winning to Congress in 1994, would be considered a longshot if he runs for the White House.
Asked about what his deciding factors will be in making the big decision on whether to launch a GOP presidential campaign, Graham said "I think I've got the right message. I've got to get the means. Sometime in May, probably at the end of May. I've got to put together a finance team that will help me raise the money to be competitive. I'm not going to raise the most money, but I've got to have enough. This is a business decision as well as a personal decision. I'm not going to do this half-hearted. If I can put a finance team together to make me competitive in Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina, I'll do this."
In a politically astute move for any potential White House contender, Graham praised the Granite State as a place where that levels the playing field.
"Thank God for New Hampshire, because if it weren't for New Hampshire, you could just buy the primary. If it were New York, California and Florida, money would matter. Money matters but New Hampshire is an antidote to big money so it makes me more likely run because of a place like New Hampshire."
And Graham said he relishes the Granite State's renowned retail politics.
"If you don't show up like I did last night in the middle of a snowstorm. If you don't get on the boat, go see everybody's third cousin, you're not going to win in New Hampshire," he said. "For me to do well I've got to come up here a lot and have an organization that can capture the momentum if I get momentum. I've got to do interviews like this. I've got to do town hall meetings. I've got to spend a lot of retail time on the ground, but to me that is not a burden but a real joy quite frankly."
Graham should place well in his home state, which votes third in the primary and caucus calendar. And while he thinks he can be competitive in Iowa, which kicks off the race for the White House, he thinks New Hampshire's his best fit in the early voting states.
"I'm going to play hard in Iowa. I like the people in Iowa. They're very much like South Carolina. But New Hampshire really is a good fit for me because I try to give people a honest answer to a hard question. I'm willing to show up a lot . And at the end of the day the mix of the voters in New Hampshire probably is my best chance to do well," Graham said. "You'll probably have about forty percent of independent voters participating in the Republican primary. That's probably good for a guy like me."
Graham says Paul ‘out of step'
Graham and Paul were both in New Hampshire on Wednesday. The senator from South Carolina said he likes Paul, who on Tuesday formally announced his candidacy for president. And he says he's worked with Paul on a number of issues, but when it comes to foreign policy and national security, he doesn't think Paul matches up.
"It's nothing personal. I think his foreign policy is out of step with the Republican Party and doesn't fit the times in which we live," Graham said.
Paul pushed back, saying Graham's mistaken about where he stands on such issues as battling ISIS, support for Israel and the negotiations over Iran's nuclear weapons program.
Asked if he would support the Republican senator from Kentucky if he captured the GOP's 2016 presidential nomination, Graham said "I would support him because he's the nominee of my party and this is a team sport. But I would ask him to do the same. Would he support me."
After stopping by NH1's studio, Graham teamed up with Sen. Kelly Ayotte for an official Senate event in Laconia. Asked if he was actively seeking the endorsement of the Granite State's Republican senator, Graham said "no. Kelly need to focus on Kelly."
(Ayotte could face a difficult re-election in 2016, with the possibility of a Democratic challenge from Gov. Maggie Hassan.)
"She's one of my best friends. She's become the third amigo," he said of Ayotte. "She's a rock star. She's going to go a long way in politics."