Sen. Lindsey Graham has tried in vain to make the GOP presidential race a fight over who has the best plan to crush the Islamic State. But as coordinated terror attacks on Paris dominate headlines, will primary voters finally listen to the South Carolina Republican?
Graham has long pushed for military intervention in Syria, with a substantial ground component. He told CQ Roll Call Monday that he hoped his message would pick up traction, particularly in New Hampshire — host of the first-in-the-nation presidential primary and where he will travel this weekend with Senate Armed Services Chairman John McCain.
"The plan hasn't changed. The focus of my campaign hasn't changed," Graham said in an interview.
Graham has pushed President Barack Obama to change course and put a significant number of U.S. troops on the ground in Syria as part of a multinational force — a strategy Obama has long rejected. Authorities found a Syrian passport on a bomber in Paris, where ISIS claimed responsibility for coordinated attacks on Nov. 13 that left at least 129 people dead.
“We cannot wait another six months, or for, God forbid, an attack on our homeland, to go in on the ground and hit them there. There is no other way to defeat this threat — we must go in on the ground and stop them over there," he said.
Obama said at a news conference Monday in Turkey that his military and civilian advisers have said large numbers of U.S. troops on the ground “would be a mistake ... not because our military could not march into Mosul or Raqqa or Ramadi and temporarily clear out ISIL, but because we would see a repetition of what we’ve seen before."
The clear contrast in message with Obama gives Graham, who has barely registered in presidential polls, an opening.
"This is the defining moment for Lindsey Graham's campaign. What he does with this moment will make or break his campaign," said Michael Dennehy, a New Hampshire political consultant who worked for McCain in his 2000 and 2008 campaigns. "The question is will he say something unique enough to differentiate himself from the other candidates, will he be covered by the media, and will he use paid media to back up his message?"
Defining Moment Graham hopes attendance at his campaign events will increase with a renewed focus on foreign affairs, especially in New Hampshire where McCain is popular from his two primary victories. The Granite State also has a significant military presence along the Seacoast and the nearby Portsmouth Naval Shipyard along the border with Maine.
"The plan has always been to go to New Hampshire a lot," Graham said. "I think it will matter in New Hampshire."
Dennehy, a former executive director of the New Hampshire GOP, said it’s been difficult for anyone in the second-tier of GOP candidates such as Graham to get an earned media megaphone, even in a small state.
The death toll from the Paris attacks and the spotlight on Syria and ISIS also could shift focus to Graham, who has long touted his defense and foreign policy credentials.
“There’s no question that the Paris attacks and the new ISIS threats to the U.S. are a defining moment in the presidential nomination race between serious, credible leaders on foreign policy like Bush, Rubio and Graham versus reality show candidates like Donald Trump," said Republican strategist Brian Walsh, a former top spokesman for the GOP's Senate campaign arm, in an email.
"It further clarifies the stakes in this election to voters who may have seen Trump as a protest vote but are now reminded that this is ultimately about supporting someone to be our next commander in chief,” Walsh said.
Richard Grenell, a longtime foreign policy aide in the George W. Bush administration who briefly worked for Mitt Romney in 2012, said the emphasis for candidates should be on who can address whatever issues become relevant at any particular time and place.
"I think voters look for someone who is multi-faceted," Grenell said, pointing to former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina as the kind of Republican who might appeal to voters despite not having Graham’s national security background.
"She is clear and concise and strong and understands that she has to make decisions," said Grenell, who is not affiliated with any of the 2016 campaigns. "She may not have all of the latest lingo."
Outsider Shortcomings Dennehy said the fact that the current GOP front-runners — Trump and retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson — are are running as outsiders shows that changing Washington is more important to voters than specific policy questions. He said he wasn’t sure if the Paris terrorist attacks would change that calculation.
"That's why Lindsey needs to be strong and differentiate himself from the field," Dennehy said. "Up to this point, national security, foreign policy was low on the list of priority issues with Republican voters."
But Walsh suggested Graham may face a challenge in showing voters how he's different from other Republicans, such as Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, who have garnered more support.
"Whether this debate can seriously move numbers for a lower-tier candidate like Graham is still an unknown, but there is no question that this is not the debate Trump and Carson want voters to be focused on because it shines a bright light on their shortcomings as candidates," Walsh said.
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