“Republicans lost our most qualified, thoughtful, fearless and honest presidential candidate, not to mention the candidate with the best (and it seemed sometimes the only) sense of humor,” McCain wrote in a statement this morning.
Despite — or perhaps because of — consistently woeful polling, Graham emerged as one of the most quotable candidates among the seventeen GOP competitors. And he wasn’t just cracking wise: Graham often used one-liners to stand out during the undercard debates that preceded the headlining acts. If it didn’t propel his struggling campaign into the top tier of the GOP primary, the strategy did earn Graham a continual spotlight that belied his low poll numbers.
“Strom Thurmond had four kids after age 67,” Graham said during the second undercard debate in September, his breakout performance. “If you're not willing to do that, we need to come up with a new immigration system."
Graham also riffed about alcohol during that debate, citing his experience as a bartender’s son. "That’s the first thing I'm going to do as president -- we’re going to drink more," he quipped.
Booze was a recurring prop in Graham’s campaign. "If you're looking for good beer policy, I'm your best bet," he promised at the CNBC debate. After failing to make the cut for the Fox Business' undercard debate in November, Graham live-blogged the event on Sidewire—with some vino. “I enjoyed a debate where I could have input and a glass of wine at the same time,” he said.
His Democratic rivals were hardly spared. Bernie Sanders, the Vermont senator who identifies as a Democratic socialist, “went to the Soviet Union on his honeymoon and I don't think he ever came back," Graham said at a debate.
Perhaps most important, Graham used zingers to parry with GOP front-runner Donald Trump, who made headlines back in August by revealing Graham’s cell phone number. The South Carolina senator was forced to get a new phone.
“I had the only cellphone in America they couldn’t hack into,” Graham joked about Chinese hackers during a New Hampshire campaign stop. “And Donald Trump blew that."
Responding to Trump’s proposal to temporary halt the immigration of Muslims last month, Graham re-purposed Trump’s trademark line, telling CNN, “You know how to make America great again? Tell Donald Trump to go to hell.”
Back in August, in response to Trump’s comments about Mexican immigrants, Graham was even blunter:
And Graham still had his wit on display last Tuesday, when he countered Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) at the fifth GOP undercard debate by bringing up Cruz's affinity for using references from the movie "The Princess Bride."
“Ted, getting in bed with Iran and Russia to save Assad is “‘inconceivable!’" Graham said. “Princess Buttercup would not like this.”