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Politics & Government

Sen. Graham To Announce In June If He's Joining GOP Presidential Race

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

It is Monday, which means it's time for another presidential candidate announcement. We could say the same of Tuesday or any day. In this case, it's a senator with a reputation as a hard-working insider. South Carolina's Lindsey Graham is the lawmaker who often joins John McCain on high-profile national security issues. He has also shown his independence from his party on occasion, as in 2009 when he voted yes for one of President Obama's Supreme Court choices, that of Sonia Sotomayor. As he prepares to run, he spoke with NPR's Don Gonyea who was with him in Des Moines, Iowa.

DON GONYEA, BYLINE: Sen. Lindsey Graham was in Iowa this weekend for the state GOP's big annual Lincoln Day dinner. In all, 11 official or likely presidential hopefuls were there. In an interview with NPR beforehand, the 59-year-old Graham talked about being a Senate veteran and a new face at the same time.

SENATOR LINDSEY GRAHAM: I've got people who are fans. I got people who are critics. And I got people who say, I think I know him, but I really don't know him.

GONYEA: So he's taking his easy Southern manner and an old-fashioned sense of humor on the road as he tries to make an impression, like this line, barely a minute into his Saturday speech before the packed ballroom in Des Moines. He tells the crowd that he's an attorney, including for the military where he still serves in the Air Force Reserve. Then he jokes about his first client as a young lawyer. It was, he says, a divorce case.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

GRAHAM: And he asked me a question I didn't know the answer to. If we get divorced - if me and my wife get divorced, will we still be cousins?

(LAUGHTER)

GRAHAM: The answer is yes in South Carolina. I don't know about Iowa. So...

GONYEA: The Iowa event was the biggest Sen. Graham has attended as a potential candidate. And on a dime, he turns to a serious topic without abandoning the humor.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

GRAHAM: If I'm president of the United States and you're thinking about joining al-Qaida or ISIL - anybody thinking about that?

(LAUGHTER)

GRAHAM: I'm not going to call a judge. I'm going to call a drone, and we will kill you.

(LAUGHTER, APPLAUSE)

GONYEA: And there was this when Graham, long known as a defense hawk, defended both George W. Bush and Jeb Bush, a likely opponent of his in the 2016 race. Last week, Jeb Bush gave a series of sometimes conflicting answers when asked whether he supported President Bush's decision to launch the war in Iraq. But Graham says the question's not fair. The focus should be on what's happening now.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

GRAHAM: And when it comes to blaming people about Iraq, the person I blame is Barack Obama, not George W. Bush.

GONYEA: He wrapped up his remarks with a personal story, one he tells often on the campaign trail of the death of his mom from Hodgkin's disease when Graham was 21.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

GRAHAM: And the bills wiped us out 'cause we're under-insured, so I don't need a lecture from a Democrat about health care. Fifteen months later, my dad died. I'm 22. My sister's 14. My world came to an end, upside down. If it wasn't for family, friends and faith, I wouldn't be standing here today.

GONYEA: Graham's speech was among the best-received at the Iowa event. Afterward, he greeted well-wishers, some of whom expressed pleasant surprise at his performance. He shook hands, posed for photos and offered them treats from a plate of cookies.

GRAHAM: We got - get cookies. Eat the cookies.

(LAUGHTER)

GONYEA: Now, back to the interview. Graham says he worries that the debate in the GOP primaries will pull the party too far to the right. He says he wants, for example, a real debate on immigration, saying reforms are necessary for the economy and for national security. He adds that Republican hardliners on the issue hurt the party's chances of ever winning Hispanic votes.

GRAHAM: I worry that we'll marginalize ourself yet again with the fastest-growing constituency in America - the Hispanic community.

GONYEA: Finally, it's worth noting here that Senator Graham's best friend in the Senate is John McCain. Graham was often by McCain's side as the Arizona senator campaigned for president in 2008. Here's what he says he learned from McCain.

GRAHAM: Because you're the front-runner, it doesn't mean you're going to wind up being the front-runner. Because you're fifth in a four-person race, it doesn't mean you're out of it. I've learned never give up. Have a message. Stick to it, and be yourself.

GONYEA: And he says try to have fun.

GRAHAM: I'm having a blast (laughter).

GONYEA: Don Gonyea, NPR News, Des Moines. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.