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Sluggish Presidential Bid Doesn't Keep Graham From Having a Blast in N.H.

By most measures of success, South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham’s presidential bid is lagging: low poll numbers, few major endorsements, little money raised. But those challenges aren’t slowing the GOP candidate in his efforts to win over Granite State voters.

Just look at the schedule he keeps. Graham has spent 42 days in New Hampshire this year, with roughly 140 campaign stops. That ranks him among the most frequent travelers on the state’s primary trail so far.

But that level of commitment has yet to be returned by Granite State voters. Recent polls put Graham at one percent in New Hampshire. That’s been the story for months.

But Graham said he’s not too worried about his standing.

“Polling right now is not based on extensive contact with the candidates -- it’s sort of a national driven image,” he said. “I think showing up over and over and over again keeps me encouraged because of the response I am getting. I wouldn’t be coming up here a lot if there was not a market for what I had to offer.”

Graham describes his campaign as a traditional grassroots effort, one of town hall forums, house parties and shaking hands with nearly every voter he meets. It’s a lot of work, but Graham sure seems to be having fun doing it.

Credit Paige Sutherland/NHPR
Lindsey Graham and Arizona Sen. John McCain take some time to play roulette while out on the campaign trail in Manchester.

During a nine-day swing in New Hampshire that wrapped up Friday, he played bingo and roulette in Manchester, fired guns at three different shooting ranges, and took a field trip to the Sandwich Fair on Columbus Day.

On the trail, Graham has a ready arsenal of jokes, making his events feel more like standup routines than stump speeches. 

In short, Graham doesn’t seem to be running a typical presidential campaign. Dante Scala, a political science professor at UNH, said after serving in the Senate for more than a decade and winning re-election last year, Graham really doesn’t have anything to lose.

“I think he is running the type of campaign a candidate would like to run – a fun campaign. A campaign not necessarily with high expectations; therefore, not a campaign with a lot of pressure,” Scala said.

Credit Paige Sutherland/NHPR
Lindsey Graham shows off his South Carolina marksmanship at the Fish & Game Club in Keene.

For some voters Graham’s, straightforwardness and his looseness has its appeal.

“I liked his honesty, I liked his forthrightness, I liked his mannerisms,” said Carlene Marcotte, a sales manager at Titeflex. “He cussed a few times, he was pretty open and honest. I welcome that, he didn’t seem like a stump politician."

If there is one theme Graham is emphasizing during his campaign stops, it’s his focus on foreign policy – specifically in dealing with ISIL and curbing nuclear threats from Iran.

And Graham often refers to his own military record on the stump: He served in the Air Force and Air National Guard for 12 years and was in the reserves for two decades before retiring in May.

“I have been to Iraq and Afghanistan 35 times. I know the mess we are in and how to get out of this mess,” Graham said. “Those fighting this mess deserve someone with experience. I think the voters owe it to the military to pick somebody worthy of their sacrifice and who can protect their families.”

Credit Allegra Boverman for NHPR
Lindsey Graham says by attending house parties, town halls and shaking hands with nearly every voter he meets, he hopes to turn the polls around.

For Laura Larsen of Keene, Graham’s military record gives him a leg up. Of the 15 candidates in the GOP field, Graham is the only one with military experience. “I think it is important to know how the military works from the inside, I think that is important, especially with what’s going on in the world,” Larsen said at a house party in Keene last week.

With this focus on foreign affairs, Graham often leaves domestic topics like college affordability and healthcare in the background. Fundraising challenges have also meant Graham has spent zero dollars on advertising so far.

But Graham is hopeful that like his friend and sometime campaign partner Sen. John McCain, who twice won the New Hampshire primary, the long hours will pay off.

“What I hope to have is, between now and the end of the year, the cumulative effect of meeting people, family talking to family, neighbor talking to neighbor,” he said. “Word of mouth is still a powerful force in New Hampshire but it takes a while to jump start it. You have to literally come here a lot.”

And that is what Graham plans to do until the February primary – one living room at a time.

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