DES MOINES, Iowa — On his first trip to Iowa since getting into the early days of the 2016 presidential race, South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham heard advice from Republicans already thinking about the state’s lead-off caucuses.
They put it bluntly: “I need to show up,” he said.
Graham spent two days in Iowa this week, mostly attending private events with Republican elected officials and activists, as part of his efforts to “test the waters” for a potential campaign.
Graham, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee and a leading GOP voice on foreign policy, also spoke at an event organized by a former Iowa National Guard leader and talked with reporters about national security issues.
Graham, who has been a vocal critic of President Obama’s foreign policy, said he would focus on international affairs should he decide to run for president. During a news conference Friday, he said Obama’s moves have put the country at risk, as threats grow from Islamic State militants.
“I’ve never been more worried about a terrorist-style attack on the U.S. than I am today,” Graham said. “I have one simple goal. Keep the war over there, so it doesn’t come here.”
Graham expects to make a decision on a presidential run in the next few months.
“I’ve just got to make sure there’s a path for me,” he said after a meeting Thursday with state lawmakers. “I don’t mind taking a risk.”
Retired Lt. Gen. Ron Dardis, who formerly led the Iowa National Guard, hosted an event for Graham on Thursday night that he said drew about 80 people, mostly veterans. Dardis, who met Graham during the midterm elections as he campaigned for new Iowa Sen. Joni Ernst, said Graham drew a positive response during his remarks and a question-and-answer session.
“He never shies away from the big problems,” Dardis said. “He’s worn a uniform and he’s one of us.”
Former Iowa Republican Party Chairman Matt Strawn said Graham’s foreign policy credentials could strike a chord with caucus voters. Strawn is part of a new group, led by former Michigan U.S. Rep. Mike Rogers, that is calling for more foreign policy discussion in the 2016 GOP primaries.
Strawn said that from a logistical standpoint, Graham would need to move quickly because there is a “land rush for top political talent” in the state, where other hopefuls have already spent months visiting and organizing.
Graham said he was looking for staff in the state, saying the campaign was going to be “fun and challenging.”
Said Sam Clovis, a former Republican candidate for state treasurer: “I don’t know that he would do particularly well in Iowa. He has not spent any time on the ground here. We don’t have the level of recognition and retail politics that it takes to make your way to the straw poll and the caucuses.”
Graham will be back in Iowa soon. He is scheduled to attend a policy forum on agricultural issues in Iowa in two weeks, alongside other possible GOP White House hopefuls, including former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker.