Shoot­ing the skeet

The Washington Post Sunday - - POLITICS & THE NATION - BY ROBERT COSTA AND PHILIP RUCKER philip.rucker@wash­post.com

Early on Satur­day morn­ing, GOP pres­i­den­tial can­di­date Lind­sey O. Gra­ham dis­played his fire­power in Utah.

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 old­school 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 when­they hear what Ihave 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.

Onthe 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 me­dia. He oc­ca­sion­ally ends days on the cam­paign trail by invit­ing re­porters to join him for a 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.”

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