Graham said that the candidates' focus on Iraq, the prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, Iran and nuclear weapons, the terrorist threat and Israel thus far "has not been robust enough." He did, however, compliment Santorum for providing "the closest thing we have to a Ronald Reagan voice." Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, who resigned earlier this year as Obama's ambassador to China, has been among the most ardent advocates of paring down U.S. military commitments abroad.
Graham called Huntsman a friend, but he said "that's not a road that leads to victory with South Carolina primary voters."
"If I hear a Republican nominee embracing leading from behind, they will have a very difficult time in South Carolina," Graham said on "Fox News Sunday." "The issues that I'm talking about: Iran having a nuclear weapon — a nation without a viable jail on the war on terror, Iraq now being compromised, Afghanistan being compromised, our best friend in Israel feeling they can't trust us — all these issues are worth more discussion on our side."
But not all South Carolina Republicans agree that a candidate's national security positions will influence voters as it has in past years.
The nation's struggling economy, which has been felt in the Palmetto State, has had a significant effect on how South Carolinians are viewing the 2012 elections. In parts of the state where social issues or national security might dominate, the economy has been at the fore of voters' concerns, a dynamic that shows no signs of abating according to many state political operatives.
National security tends to be most influential among Republicans who live near and along the Atlantic coast, as well as in the lowcountry region that encompasses Charleston. Even there, however, it's all about the economy, said Rep. Tim Scott, a freshman Republican from Charleston, whose district also includes Myrtle Beach. National security is "always important," he said in an interview. "But overshadowing all issues is the jobs situation. Between now and the primary, that won't change."
Scott, who won his seat last year on the strength of tea party support, has been holding town hall meetings with the Republican presidential candidates. Next on his schedule are events with Santorum and former Speaker Newt Gingrich. (Ga.). Scott referred to new frontrunner Herman Cain, a Georgia businessman and talk-show host, as the "hottest ticket in the party right now." Romney, Scott added, has been "consistent."
Graham, an Air Force reservist, is a leading Republican voice in the Senate on national security. A hawk, he is closely aligned with Senate Armed Services ranking member John McCain (R-Ariz.), whom he staunchly supported for president in 2008. McCain won South Carolina's primary that year on his way to securing the GOP nomination. Graham has yet to endorse a candidate in the 2012 contest.
Though Graham's opinions carry some weight, Sen. Jim DeMint has emerged as the state's most influential elected Republican over the past few years. He has helped boost conservative Senate candidates running in other states through his Senate Conservatives Fund political action committee, while shaping opinion on fiscal issues inside and outside the Palmetto State. DeMint's outlook on national security is similar to Graham's, but his focus in the presidential primary has been on the economy and the candidates' positions on related issues.