Between shotgun pulls at a remote Utah shooting range, South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham gives a crowd of reporters his political first-principle.
“Don’t shoot yourself in the foot,” the Republican presidential hopeful says, “is the first goal of shooting skeet, and the first goal of politics is to just survive.” For ‘Bernie Sanders,’ the clay pigeon he just named after his liberal opponent, the goal was met, as the disk flew clear of the shot from Graham’s double-barreled weapon. Other pigeons were nicknamed ‘Elizabeth Warren’ or ‘al-Baghdadi,’ for the ISIS leader.
“Giving me a gun at six in the morning is not really a good idea,” he joked the day before.
It is Graham’s humor, his hawkish foreign policy and his willingness to negotiate with Democrats that has made him a standout a Republican cattle-calls for months. Quick with a one-liner or a self-deprecating joke, he’s combining his irreverent style with dead-serious policy to significant effect, waking up sleepy audiences and dominating the cable television line-ups.
Graham envisions himself as the voice of reason on the debate stage, advocating for compromise with Democrats on climate change and immigration, while pushing an aggressive foreign policy, including putting 10,000 troops back in Iraq and Syria to defeat ISIS. He also told TIME in an interview that he is willing to buck party orthodoxy and cut a deal with Democrats to reform entitlements with both cuts in spending and increases in tax revenues, in the form of eliminated deductions. “If the entitlement reform is real, I’ll do the revenue,” he explained.
Speaking at a Republican donor retreat in Utah organized Mitt Romney, Graham joked about the ‘perfect’ Romneys, at his own expense. “Good looking, smart, nice, great family,” he said of the 2012 nominee. “Vote for me, we’re not going down this road again”
“He’s got a natural gift,” Sen. John McCain, Graham’s longtime friend, told TIME in an interview. RNC Chairman Reince Priebus proclaimed, “he’s totally hilarious…But he’s also a serious guy, talking about serious things.”
Graham would be a potent threat on the debate stage, with a quick wit to throw zingers. That is, if he can make it. He languishes near the bottom of national polls, and acknowledges he has little chance of making the stage unless the party caves to calls to allow more than the top 10 candidates to participate.
In the meantime, Graham is doing what he does best. During a break in the shooting, Graham told reporters that his campaign will be deemed a success as long as “I’m the same guy afterwards that I was before.” At the moment, he is in no danger of doing otherwise.
TIME sat down with Graham at the Stein Eriksen Lodge in Deer Valley, Utah during the Republican donor retreat. A transcript follows:
TIME: What’s your reception in these private meetings?
GRAHAM: Good. People are curious. They are looking for somebody that can win. They’re trying to check me out. And I’m thinking I made a pretty decent impression. I am trying to get some more investors, and I give it my best. I just really appreciate the opportunity to be here.
TIME: Did Mitt Romney give you any advice out here?
GRAHAM: He just, just be yourself. Be funny, be Lindsey, be serious, you’re a really good guy. He wouldn’t have had me out here if he didn’t think I had some talent.
TIME: Comedic talent or political?
TIME: You’re one of the few candidates who can tell a joke.
GRAHAM: You’re in a business where you risk danger telling any joke or making any glib comment. I’m not going to live my life that way. You know, I try to be appropriately funny, sometimes I maybe miss the mark. I’m not going to take myself too seriously, certainly, I don’t take my critics too seriously. I try to make it entertaining, but informative. If I’m going to sit there and listen to somebody for 30 minutes, then it’s okay to laugh. Ronald Reagan was pretty good. Humor can really make a point sometimes better than any other talking point.
TIME: Any of the other candidates funny in your view?
GRAHAM: Marco [Rubio]’s pretty funny. I’m not hanging around ’em, but Trump’s funny. I think he’s very funny.
TIME: You think he’ll get in?
GRAHAM: I don’t know. He says he will.
TIME: Do you have to win over converts to win this election? On climate change, and immigration reform, a lot of the GOP disagrees with you.
GRAHAM: That’s not true, over 60 percent of the Republican primary vote would support a comprehensive immigration solution with a pathway to citizenship if they were convinced it wouldn’t lead to a third wave of illegal immigration. People are all over the board on climate change. I’ve been to the arctic, I’ve been to Alaska. I think CO2 emissions are heating up the planet. How much, I don’t know. But if half of it’s true, that’s pretty serious. I just want a pro-business way to fix it. Young people, to their credit, are very environmentally sensitive.
TIME: You think that there’s a silent majority out there?
GRAHAM: Loud doesn’t mean a lot. I had six primary opponents. The slam on me is that I work with Democrats too much. I vote for their nominees because I want them to vote for ours. Qualifications should be the standard, not ideological alignment. I did very well in a red state.
TIME: Last time around, all of the candidates got the 10-1 spending cuts to tax increase question. Would you take that deal?
GRAHAM: Yeah I would, if the spending cuts are real, you better believe it. We’re not talking about raising rates, we’re talking about eliminating deductions and taking that revenue to pay down the debt. The only way you get Democrats on board for a Simpson-Bowles deal is for us to eliminate some deductions and take the money to pay down debt as well as lower rates. And in return, they have to just agree with us to adjust the age of retirement and means test some benefits cause we’ll become Greece if we do not. So I would do it. If the entitlement reform is real, I’ll do the revenue.
TIME: Have you signed the Americans for Tax Reform pledge? Would you?
GRAHAM: No. Nope. What I’m going to do is sign a pledge to be the best president that I know how to be. Be as honest as I know how to be. Put the country ahead of the party. Be a good Republican. But at the end of the day, I just don’t see how in the world you do a big deal without Democrats. And the revenue I’m talking about is eliminating deductions, and I won’t do that until I get a commitment on entitlement reform.
TIME: What’s your path?
GRAHAM: Just to build momentum. To exceed expectations in Iowa. Finish in the top tier in New Hampshire. Win South Carolina. And I’m off to the races. But the only way I’ll do that is to convince people that I’m the best person to be commander in chief on day one. The only way I will win anywhere is to be able to convince people that I am the best person to be commander in chief, and the problem solving skill set that I bring to the table and willingness to work across the aisle is an asset to the party.
TIME: Even if this doesn’t work out, that this is a worthy effort. Do you think you’re bringing the voice of sanity and reason to this debate?
GRAHAM: Well, I’m not saying that people who disagree with me are insane. I am saying I am comfortable with who I am and what I believe, and I think I have a strategy to degrade and destroy ISIL. And I certainly have the willingness to work with Democrats to do the big things that somebody needs to do. And, at the end of the day, we’re all in this together. Radical Islam hates us all, whether you’re a Republican or Democrat. The baby boomers are going to wipe out Social Security and Medicare if somebody doesn’t do something about it. And I’d like to be the person to get this together. I think I’d be good at that. I think I’d be a good president, bringing people together.
TIME: Are you worried that other candidates don’t have foreign policy experience?
GRAHAM: I am telling you they are going to have to convince people that they do. I am going to support our nominee. I think we can beat her. If somebody else wins the nomination, then I’ll be in their camp.