TUFTONBORO, N.H. -- When the first burst of gunfire reverberated in the hills surrounding Beverly Bruce’s backyard on Tuesday, some guests at the well-heeled New Hampshire Republican’s party put down their small plates of cheese and crackers and stepped outside to see what was going on.
A brief moment passed before another couple of rounds cut through the chilly evening fog. And then a collective determination set in that there was no cause for alarm, and everything went back to normal.
One by one, people returned their attention to their alcoholic beverage of choice and redirected their gaze to the cheetah, lion, hippopotamus and other exotic taxidermy hanging up inside Bruce’s barn.
A few minutes later, a 5'7" feather-haired man with an Alfred E. Neuman grin came bounding out of the house in baggy khakis and blue sport coat. With a generously poured glass of red wine in hand, he strode side by side with a bespectacled woman in a fur-and-hide vest. He was the honored guest, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), and she the captivatingly dressed host.
“My husband shot the sable, and we made a vest out of it,” Bruce explained to a guest who complimented her outfit.
Graham, who announced his long-shot 2016 White House bid on Monday, is not typically one to be late to his own party. In a full day of campaign events, he had mostly been running ahead of schedule. But he had a good reason for being a bit tardy on this occasion: Graham had been the one responsible for the minor stir that's likely to occur whenever unexpected gunfire breaks out at a political gathering.
“I greeted him at the door with my rifle,” Bruce told The Huffington Post of her initial encounter with Graham that evening. “He said, ‘Can I shoot it?’ I said, ‘Of course.’ He said, ‘What can I shoot?’ So I had him shoot at a stump.”
In firing Bruce's weapon without telling anyone about it, Graham had broken one of the cardinal rules of running for president here: If you’re going to shoot a gun, make sure to invite the press.
But the ever-spontaneous Republican is not a photo-op kind of candidate. That much should have been clear from the moment he agreed to attend his first New Hampshire house party as a declared candidate in the kind of place that any good advance staffer would avoid at all costs: a stylish home displaying more than a few signs near stuffed heads that read, “Please do not touch the animals.”
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush has said that he wants to run for president “joyfully.” Lindsey Graham, on the other hand, wants to have real fun.
As Bruce escorted him around the game room, introducing him to New Hampshire state representatives and regaling him with tales of her hunting feats, Graham wore a bemused smile that indicated he was in on the absurdity of the situation, whether she was or not.
“I shot that,” Bruce said, pointing to the hippo head, its formidable bottom teeth resting just a few inches above Graham's own head.
“Was it self-defense?” the candidate replied without skipping a beat.
Yes, Graham makes jokes -- lots of them.
After Bruce introduced him to her guests as a “national security hawk,” Graham had a retort for that, too.
“There’s no hawks on the wall, and let’s keep it that way,” he said.
As he stepped up onto the elevated stone fireplace to begin his nearly hour-and-a-half-long remarks to the crowd of about 100, Graham nearly impaled his arm on what appeared to be a long-horned antelope.
After warning his audience to be careful not to “get gored,” he glanced up to acknowledge a water buffalo and another horned creature that were mounted above him.
“Bill, Hillary, how y’all doing?” Graham asked the dead animals with a friendly wave.
Like an experienced comedian who knows not to quit when he’s on a roll, Graham didn’t let the laughter die down before he got to his next line.
“If I say anything to piss Beverly off, I apologize,” he said. “I thought the worst thing that could happen to you in politics is losing. Until I came here.”
It’s no secret that Graham is trying to recapture the feel-good, freewheeling magic that buoyed his erstwhile campaign trail buddy John McCain during the latter senator's 2000 presidential run. In that race, the Arizona Republican talked for as long as anyone was willing to listen on his way to an unlikely 18-point walloping of the George W. Bush juggernaut in New Hampshire. Eight years later, with Graham by his side for much of it, McCain triumphed here again after toying with -- and then abandoning -- a more careful, buttoned-up style and embracing his natural attitude: “Ah, to hell with it.”
It’s an unvarnished approach that tends to work particularly well in a state where voters have a collective penchant for sniffing out inauthenticity in a candidate faster than a basset hound can find a piece of bacon slipped under the rug.
Sometimes, however, it can get you into trouble.
At one point during his ad-libbed remarks, Graham was attempting to illustrate, in his own colorful way, just how unpopular the president is in the senator's home state. “Barack Obama should never have a flat tire in South Carolina,” he said.
Even in this crowd of hardcore Republicans, the line didn’t quite land (one woman let out an audible, “Jeez”).
Graham seemed to realize almost instantly how his own Southern twang might have added to the ugly implication that his joke meant some folks in South Carolina wanted to inflict physical harm on the nation’s first black president. “We respect our president, but we don’t think he’s doing a very good job,” he added quickly.
Though the moment highlighted the risks inherent in shooting from the hip, one would be hard-pressed to find any hint of viciousness in Lindsey Graham’s character.
Inclusiveness is at the heart of his approach to campaigning. Answering one woman’s question about how the Republican Party might start to win presidential elections again, Graham offered a nearly 15-minute soliloquy about the GOP’s failure to attract minorities. It was a lecture that only a slim majority of his white audience demonstrated any particular eagerness to hear, but Graham delivered it as emphatically as if he had been telling them that he would protect their Second Amendment rights.
“You know why I think we’re losing?” Graham said after laying out the parameters of his support for comprehensive immigration reform. “I think we’re losing market share over the largest-growing demographic because of the way we’ve handled this issue. And I still can’t figure out why we’re losing the Asian vote, other than to say this: If you seem to be mean and intolerant to one group, it bleeds over to the other.”
Immigration isn’t the only issue on which Graham is proudly out of lockstep with conservative orthodoxy.
There are going to be a lot of Republicans running for president in 2016, but Graham is the only one who will bring up unprompted his support for legislation to tackle man-made climate change as quickly as he will call for a constitutional amendment to overturn the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision.
Graham -- who coasted to re-election last year after speculation that he would face a serious primary challenge turned out to be only that -- is campaigning like a man who knows he’s supposed to lose but isn’t so sure.
During a stop at MaryAnn’s Diner in Derry earlier in the day, he worked the lunchtime crowd effortlessly, taking any empty seat at the table without asking first. Foreign policy is his favorite topic and the reason why he saw an opening to enter the race, but Graham was happy to chat about pretty much anything else, too. He exchanged ideas about VA hospital care with a group of older veterans and swapped fist bumps with the millennial set.
For Graham, a lifelong bachelor, campaigning is one of the ways he likes to spend his time. But it’s not merely a lark.
As he ate the meat out of his lobster roll at Moe Joe’s Family Restaurant in Manchester (like many facing the gluttonous and exercise-deficient life on the campaign trail, Graham is trying to stick to a low-carb diet), he outlined what he sees as his potential path in unaffiliated-voter-rich New Hampshire.
“Ideologues usually don’t do well with independent voters,” Graham said. “I don’t think I’ll be seen as an ideologue. I think I’ll be seen as conservative.”
Of all Graham’s challenges, perhaps none is greater than the likelihood that he won't be one of the 10 participants, as determined by national polls, in the first GOP presidential debate that Fox News is slated to air on Aug. 6. After the debates played a critical role in the 2012 Republican nominating fight, it’s difficult to see how Graham can make a dent in the far more crowded and formidable 2016 contest if he’s not even in the same room as the frontrunners.
Or is it?
“OK, so you’re on the stage with 10 people,” Graham said. “You get, like, what -- three or four minutes, if you’re lucky. Maybe you get a good sound bite. I’m going to be at a house party tonight for two hours. If you do enough of it, that puts you on the map in New Hampshire.”
In keeping with the “straight talk” image he is seeking to appropriate from McCain, Graham wasn’t shy about laying out for a reporter the route that could take him from “on the map” to behind the podium at the Republican convention next summer.
“I need to exceed expectations in Iowa, I need to finish in the top tier here, and I need to win my home state,” he said. “If I do those three things, it doesn’t matter worth a damn what happened in the debate. If I don’t do those things, it doesn’t matter how well I would’ve done in the debate.”
What will be will be ... it's out of his hands ... just put it all out there, and live with the consequences -- this seemingly blasé attitude about his own political fate mirrors McCain’s general disposition during his two triumphs here.
But at Beverly Bruce’s house later that night, Graham laid out the stakes in an entirely different fashion, one that belied the lighthearted exterior he'd had on display for most of the day.
“Every candidate in this race would love to be where I’m standing right now -- in front of about 100 people in New Hampshire,” Graham said, his voice cracking with some emotion. “Just think about what that means. I don’t know what the president of France has to do, but I doubt if they have to do this. Please. Please. I’ll end on this thought: Don’t let the system change.”