The BFF Tour: Lindsey Graham Looks to John McCain for a New Hampshire Revival

Watch senators needle each other like only besties can.

October 23, 2015, 10:39 AM

— -- “Senator!” someone calls out.

Lindsey Graham turns around. He’s in New Hampshire, a state in which he desperately needs a good showing to have any chance at succeeding in his first presidential bid. Mired at the bottom of the polls in mid-October, the senior senator from South Carolina can use all the attention he can get.

But the greeting isn’t for him. It’s another John McCain fan.

“You’re the hand I wanted to shake,” a beaming woman tells McCain.

“The old coot’s back,” Graham said cheerfully and walks away.

McCain may be the most popular Republican to set foot in New Hampshire this year. The Arizona senator and war hero won the state in each of his two presidential bids, holding more than 100 town halls in 2000 and 2008.

Graham is banking on the same strategy. He’s already spent more time in the Granite State than any other candidate; this nine-day tour in mid-October is his longest stint yet.

And somehow, he’s enlisted a 79-year-old senator to join him for three of those days.

“Yeah, I brought the old [man] with me,” Graham explains to an organizer at a VFW in Pelham.

“Hey, old man,” McCain growls.

The two seem to spend as much time insulting each other as offering praise, which may speak to how deep their bond runs. As members of the Senate Armed Services Committee, the two have traveled to conflict zones more than 30 times together.

McCain served in Vietnam. Graham served his time in the JAG Corps.

“You know the difference between a lawyer and catfish, don’t you?” McCain asks the vets. “One is a scum-sucking bottom dweller. The other is a fish.”

Graham smiles and rolls his eyes. He’ll hear it three more times today.

Sitting side by side in a black SUV, Graham said their scariest moment together didn’t happen in Iraq or Afghanistan, but ten years ago in Uzbekistan.

“So, John is beating the crap out of the leader of this country,” Graham said. Uzbek President Islam Karimov’s troops had fired into a crowd of protesters earlier in the month, and McCain, Graham and Sen. Chris Sununu, from New Hampshire, were calling for reforms. “[McCain] says to me, ‘we’re going there!’”

Graham tried to talk McCain out of it. “I am not feeling good about this trip,” he recalled saying. “I’ve been to a lot of places -- Iraq, Afghanistan, a lot of places. But this one kind of creeped me out.”

After appearing with opposition leaders at a tense news conference, the pair sat nervously on an airport runway, wondering if the military would intimidate them to save face. Or worse.

“When we go wheels up, I go ‘thank God,’” Graham recalled. “Because they hated our guts, they didn’t want us there. I felt incredibly uncomfortable.” But they weren't out of harm's way yet.

“It wasn’t two minutes into takeoff, boom. Hit a bird,” Graham said, prompting McCain to chuckle. “Had to go back and land. I thought, 'We’re never getting back. We’re going to be in gulag.'”

Now, the biggest risk to their well-being seems to be food from the campaign trail. The two senators, along with their small group of aides, stop for lunch at Chez Vachon, a Manchester lunch joint offering Canadian favorites from just across the border. They shake hands with customers under a sign daring them to eat five pounds of poutine -- French fries covered in gravy and cheese curds -- in an hour.

They don’t take the challenge. But McCain clearly still has an appetite for campaigning. He spots a couple eating lunch in the corner.

“Lindsey, one more,” he said, dragging along Graham, who clearly wants to eat.

“Hi, guys,” Graham obliges. “I’m one of forty people running for president. Check me out.”

McCain asks a boy what grade he’s in. “Eighth grade?” he exclaims. “Lindsey spent four years in eighth grade.”

McCain’s gift for glad-handing might not have rubbed off on Graham -- and neither have the poll numbers. Analysis by ABC News shows him barely squeezing onto the stage at next week’s “undercard” debate. Over several recent national surveys, Graham is barely a blip on the radar. Just four people in a thousand say they would vote for him, putting him right alongside former Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore at the bottom of the polls.

Graham has tried to expand that pool by meeting everyone. He’s campaigned at shooting ranges, a city dump (“one of the best interactions I’ve ever had”) and this weekend, with McCain, a Manchester bingo hall.

Like so many things on the campaign trail, presiding over bingo has its hidden pitfalls. With a headset perched on his silver hair, Graham pulls a single ball.

“G -- for Graham!” he said. “G-51.” He places the ball on the big board for everyone to see, and accidentally presses it through a hole.

“I’m going to fix the board, guys, he messed it up,” the host announced. Graham leaves the room with a bit more urgency than with which he entered, greeting players in another room.

But even though he may lead the race in meeting New Hampshirites, it’s not clear they’re leaving convinced.

“Great candidate, loved what he had to say,” said Steve Swan, of Londonderry, after seeing Graham in a friend’s backyard. “But it’s just, ‘will he make it to the final throes?'”

There are only two veterans in the race -- Graham and Jim Gilmore. But even after an hour of hearing Graham at the local VFW, former Marine George Squiarez isn’t quite ready to endorse.

“Sort of on the same plane as everybody else,” he said.

Asked about McCain, his eyes light up. “Everybody likes him,” Squiarez said, grinning. “I’ll go listen to him any time.”

Graham doesn’t have another play. Despite being from South Carolina, another early voting state, Graham is putting all of his eggs into New Hampshire’s basket. He admits that if the campaign falters in the Granite State, it would effectively spell the end of his candidacy.

“I gotta do well up here to justify continuing in the race in my own mind,” he told ABC News. “We’ll see what that definition of ‘well’ means ... but this will be a litmus test for me in my own mind.”

So, he continues to plug away in New Hampshire, “the John McCain way.” Trips, town halls, and lots and lots of handshakes.

Between bites, McCain admits that his method is a grind -- and that his presence might be less about tactics and more about morale.

“We’re talking about 16-, 18-hour days,” McCain said. “We have a lot of fun, and joke back and forth, and enjoy each other’s company. That makes this whole grind an enjoyable experience.”

“Amen,” said Graham, who spent much of 2000 and 2008 stumping for McCain. “I didn’t really probably appreciate how much came from having someone you could talk to. When he comes up here, it’s like Christmas for me."

“I mean, it takes a little pressure off you, he draws a big crowd, but having a partnership with somebody who understands you ... is a blessing. And I’m lucky," Graham said.

But he won’t get off that easily.

“Remember,” McCain deadpans, “he’s also a loser.”

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