OTR Interviews

The Pulse of the Palmetto State: What S.C. voters are looking for in a GOP presidential candidate

Sen. Lindsey Graham on the S.C. primary and what voters are looking for in a GOP candidate


This is a rush transcript from "On the Record," January 20, 2012. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.

GRETA VAN SUSTEREN, FOX NEWS HOST: Only eight-and-a-half hours until the polls open in South Carolina, and Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina picks the winners. Is he ready to endorse? We spoke with Senator Graham a short time ago.


VAN SUSTEREN: OK, senator, this is your last chance. You can endorse before the policy open in South Carolina. I just want you to know, this is your last chance. Are you going to endorse or not?

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM, R-S.C.: Thanks, but no thanks. I'm going to let people decide. I'm still thinking about it myself. But Newt is closing a lot of windows back here. It will be a very close race, a very interesting race tomorrow.

VAN SUSTEREN: You were in the hall last night for the debate. It started out rather explosive. How did it play in the hall? Watching it on TV is so different. What was it like inside the hall when he exploded on the question he didn't like from John King?

GRAHAM: Electric. I think a lot of people sympathized with the idea that two days before the primary, you know, marriages that end badly are sad. I've been a divorce lawyer. I understand there are a lot of hurt feelings. It's been a dozen years ago. And I think a lot of people felt that airing it two days before the primary was something that happened 12 years ago was probably unfair. And Newt made the case that Republicans seem to have to endure things that our Democratic colleagues don't. So it was very electric. And I think a lot of non-Newt people would agree with that statement.

VAN SUSTEREN: Why do you think that Senator Santorum is down as low as he is in the polls? I know he's moving up, but I would think that --

GRAHAM: He is moving up.

VAN SUSTEREN: He is moving up. But still he's not neck and neck with Governor Romney and Speaker Gingrich, at least not yet. He has about eight or nine hours, but at least not right now.

GRAHAM: Let me tell you, I thought Rick's debate performance was the best that he's had. And quite frankly, I thought he was excellent last night. He is someone who wins our heart. He is a good man. What you see is what you get with Rick. He's a solid conservative. You know, he's been a Ronald Reagan national security conservative, something near and dear to my heart.

But I think the question for Rick is can he take it to the next level? In all honestly, Mitt Romney has been running for president like six years and Newt has been a national figure for 20 years and Rick is new to the stage. I think when you look at Rick Santorum's campaign it's probably the best return on investment maybe in modern politics because he's done this on a shoestring. He's just a really good man with a good message. And he's going up against people with a lot more money. We will see what happens. I think he will do well tomorrow.

VAN SUSTEREN: Do you have the sense that Speaker Gingrich is surging, moving up, or that Governor Romney is moving down?

GRAHAM: Good question. I don't believe this is anything other than Newt knocking it out of the park Monday at the Fox News debate. The debate last night was interesting, but the best debate that I've seen in this whole presidential primary process was Monday night in Myrtle Beach, and Newt owned that stage. He reminded us why we all like him, and he has shown a command presence and an ability to sell conservatism that makes us feel like, yes, that's what we believe. And he conveys it in a fashion that many of us believe that a larger audience would accept.

Now Governor Romney was as solid as he can be. He will be a very electable nominee. But the rise of Newt Gingrich is directly related to his debate performance and the way he has campaigned. Governor Romney, quite frankly, has done well, but Newt has just out-shown him here in recent days.

VAN SUSTEREN: I think the candidate that seems to have the most passionate supporters is Congressman Ron Paul.

GRAHAM: Oh, without a doubt.

VAN SUSTEREN: Without a doubt. Why can't he get more passion out of the voters in South Carolina? Why aren't they flocking to him?

GRAHAM: Because we -- we believe in liberty, but we aren't really fond of legalizing heroin. We're not libertarians. And we don't believe it was legal to go to Pakistan to kill bin Laden in and we thought it will be a bad idea to tell the Pakistanis we were coming. We are Ronald Reagan peace through strength Republicans who believe the number one goal of the federal government is to fund the military. And we believe in fighting the terrorists in their own backyard before they get here. And if you capture a terrorist in the United States, the last thing they should here is you have the right to remain silent. So we just have different views of how to be strong militarily and our national security view is different than Ron Paul.

But we do agree with him about limiting the size of the federal government and the Federal Reserve. So we are just a very strong pro- military, Ronald Reagan national security defense state, and his message doesn't appeal to us as much as it does in other places.

VAN SUSTEREN: It will be fascinating to watch tomorrow night. I do hope you make up your mind about how you are going to vote tomorrow.

GRAHAM: Can I tell you something?

VAN SUSTEREN: Yes, what?

GRAHAM: If you turn on the TV down here or open up your mailbox, these Super-PACs and the campaigns themselves, but the Super-PACs particularly, if you read about the candidates or watched TV, not only do you think they shouldn't be president, you wouldn't let them walk your dog. This stuff is really over the top.

But South Carolinians have a good filter. These are four good men that have different views on the margins. Ron Paul has probably got the most different view, the most libertarian of the candidates. But Rick, Newt, and Mitt Romney are good men, and we are looking for someone who is conservative but electable, someone with passion that can sell conservatism, and it's going to be a close race tomorrow.

But Newt is surging not because of any faults of the other candidates, because of his performance. We will see if he gets over the line or not.

VAN SUSTEREN: Senator, thank you. We will all be watching. Thank you, sir.

GRAHAM: Thank you.