After a long, nightmarish stretch of little but bad news, Jeb Bush put in a decent (if overshadowed) performance in the Fox Business Network’s candidate debate in South Carolina last night, and then this morning snagged the endorsement of that state’s senior senator, Lindsey Graham, who folded his own presidential campaign last month.
Opinion leaders friendly to Bush can be expected to inflate the Graham endorsement into the magical appearance of a path, however narrow, to the nomination. After all, we will be told, the Palmetto State has long been the “firewall” for Republican Establishment candidates who got into trouble in Iowa or New Hampshire. Poppy Bush croaked Bob Dole there in 1988 (after finishing third in Iowa and then mortally wounding Dole in New Hampshire by brandishing a no-tax-increase pledge). Dole took out Pat Buchanan (not to mention Lamar! Alexander) in South Carolina in 1996 after losing to the fiery paleoconservative in New Hampshire. John McCain’s win there in 2008, after a demolition derby involving Mitt Romney, Mike Huckabee, and Fred Thompson, paved his way to the nomination. And most famously, McCain succumbed to one of the nastier South Carolina campaigns (which says a lot) in 2000 as Jeb’s brother reversed a New Hampshire loss and resumed his momentum toward the White House as the overwhelming choice of both Establishmentarians and movement-conservative types.
In 2000, Lindsey Graham, then a House member, was on the other side of the barricades from the Bush family, as McCain’s most prominent in-state backer. I guess their shared interest in rehabilitating the reputation of W.’s Iraq War, if not actually restarting it, covers a multitude of past sins.
It’s unclear what tangible assets Graham brings to Jeb’s table along with his symbolic value as the senior officeholder in a key primary state. In the last poll taken in South Carolina before his withdrawal, Graham was bumping along near the bottom of the field, in a tie for eighth place with a booming one percent of the vote. His support is by all accounts less coveted than that of Governor Nikki Haley, whose celebrity ballooned once again with the controversy she spurred in her State of the Union response. And you could combine her political capital with Graham’s and double it and it would still probably fall short of the endorsement value of Graham’s junior colleague Tim Scott — not to mention Scott’s predecessor and patron, Jim DeMint, who could in theory come down from his perch at the Heritage Foundation and weigh in.
Graham’s move might be seen as representing a lost opportunity for Marco Rubio, the putative favorite of those bellicose Republicans who itch for a two-front land war in the Middle East and an unleashing of the eavesdroppers of the NSA and the interrogators of Gitmo. And it does marginally increase the possibility that South Carolina will complicate rather than confirm the great sorting-out of Republican Establishment candidates that New Hampshire is supposed to accomplish, lest Republicans find themselves faced with a choice of Trump and Cruz. At the moment, those two worthies, not Jeb Bush, remain the favorites in Lindsey Graham’s state.