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One anecdote that shows why a Lindsey Graham presidential campaign would be fascinating

Lindsey Graham.
Lindsey Graham.
Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call Group/ Getty

When Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) announced in January that he'd explore a presidential run, basically everyone was skeptical. His chances of winning are seemingly nil; some even wondered if the main purpose of his effort would be to troll Rand Paul.

It's now become clear, though, that while the GOP field will be filled with compelling characters, Graham may be one of the most fun and interesting to watch. Because on issues where he differs with the conservative base, he doesn't pander or dodge. He makes his case, at great length, and tries to win over the people who disagree with him.

This is evident in an excellent new profile of Graham by Jon Ward of Yahoo News, who traveled around New Hampshire with the senator earlier this month. I urge you to click over and read the whole thing (the part where Ward and Graham discuss baseball is particularly funny). But for my money, the most fascinating exchange occurs when attendees at a New Hampshire event challenge Graham on his support for "amnesty."

Graham is unashamed to argue, at length, that unauthorized immigrants should get legal status

A co-author of the Senate's 2013 immigration reform bill, Graham has faced heat from the right on immigration in the past. Creative conservatives have nicknamed him "Lindsey Grahamnesty" and "Lindsey Gomez."

Yet, Ward writes, "for almost 15 minutes," Graham engaged in a back-and-forth with the audience, "challenging his listeners, then letting out some pressure with a joke, and then charging back into another rapid-fire series of queries." The passage is far too long to excerpt, but here's a taste:

"Do you agree that having 11 million people living in the shadows is not good for our culture?" Graham inquired. This time there was a muted response.

"Do you agree that they’re here mostly to work?"

He was met with several emphatic noes, but forged ahead, using his background as an Air Force lawyer to lead the crowd like a witness in a trial.

"Why are they here?" he said.

"For the freebies," a woman said. "Freebies," a man echoed.

Graham sounded slightly exasperated. "Well, they — that’s wrong, absolutely... You can say that, but there is no — you cannot get food stamps, you can’t get Medicare, you can’t get Social Security if you’re illegal," Graham said and then went beyond defending illegal immigrants to advocating for them. "About $80 billion has been paid into the Social Security system by illegal immigrants, and they’re never going to get the money out. They’ve been paying in, but they’re not going to get it out."

After a long back-and-forth, Graham managed to get most attendees to agree that it would be too hard to deport everyone, and that instead unauthorized immigrants should learn English, pay back taxes, and wait in line before getting citizenship — which is, of course, the Senate's immigration reform bill.

Graham wants a conversation on immigration. Rubio doesn't.

It's long been clear that GOP presidential candidates will have serious difficulty handling the immigration issue this year. The conservative base, skeptical of pathways to legalization or citizenship, will dominate what could be a yearlong primary process. But many GOP elites want reform — either because they support the policies, or because they want their party to appeal to Hispanic voters in the general election.

With that in mind, Graham's unrepentant sales pitch makes a particularly interesting contrast to one of his colleagues in the Senate's "Gang of Eight": Marco Rubio.

Burned by the backlash against his bill from the right, Rubio said at CPAC in February that the "single biggest lesson of the past two years" was that "you can't even have a conversation" about immigration reform unless it's "proven" to people "that future illegal immigration will be controlled and brought over control."

He repeated several times that a "conversation" about legalizing the status of unauthorized immigrants isn't currently possible. "You can’t just tell people we’re gonna secure the border, we’re gonna put in E-Verify; you have to do it, they have to see it, they have to see it working, and then they’re gonna have a reasonable conversation with you about the other parts," he said.

As Ward's profile shows, Graham is taking a very different approach. Perhaps inspired by his continued political strength in deep red South Carolina, Graham isn't shying away from his pro-reform views. He thinks the public is ready for this conversation — and he thinks that through the strength of his arguments, he can persuade skeptical conservatives that immigration reform makes sense.