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Dana Milbank: The clown car Republican field

Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, speaking last month in Nashua, N.H., all but confirmed Monday that he will run for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination.
Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, speaking last month in Nashua, N.H., all but confirmed Monday that he will run for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination. The Associated Press

WASHINGTON – “If you can’t take a joke,” Lindsey Graham has said, “don’t run for president.”

Graham, a senator from South Carolina and one of umpteen Republicans running for president, can take a joke – which is why he appreciates the absurdity that is the GOP field. There are far too many candidates (so many that there are concerns they won’t all fit on a debate stage), and to gain attention they are juggling, tooting horns and blowing slide whistles like so many painted performers emerging from a clown car.

“I do bar mitzvahs, birthday parties, weddings, funerals – call me, I’ll come,” Graham told a crowd in New Hampshire last month. He said voters should ignore Hillary Clinton and “look to the 35 people running for president on the Republican side. And just shoot up among us until you get one of us out of the tree.”

There is little dignity for Republicans as they try to break free of the very large flock – as Graham experienced Monday morning when he appeared on “CBS This Morning” to make what MSNBC reported would be a “very important” announcement.

Graham cooled his heels in the green room while the morning show reported on the Amtrak crash, trouble in Iraq, a biker-gang fight, the “Mad Men” finale, daredevils killed in Yosemite, murders in Washington, D.C. – and a great white shark who is on Twitter. When Graham finally got his moment, he announced that he would make an announcement in two weeks.

Gayle King, one of the anchors, pointed out that there wasn’t a whole lot of mystery involved, because Graham had already said on Friday that there was a 99.9 percent chance he will run. (He had previously put the likelihood at 98.6 percent.)

Another host, Charlie Rose, asked, “Are you running in part because you looked at the field and you don’t think they’re very sophisticated on foreign policy?”

Graham momentarily forgot his phony coyness. “I’m running because of what you see on television. I’m running because I think the world is falling apart,” he said.

So never mind that 0.1 percent chance that he isn’t running.

Thus did Graham try his hand at the presidential announcement game, in which candidates pretend there is some intrigue about their intentions in order to get some precious airtime. Ted Cruz tried for his 15 minutes of fame by holding the first announcement. Marco Rubio drew thousands to Miami’s Freedom Tower. Mike Huckabee brought in aging crooner Tony Orlando. One day earlier, Ben Carson had a musical extravaganza and released a video putting the candidate in the company of Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr.

Former New York Gov. George Pataki, perhaps the smallest of the GOP Lilliputians, announced on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” last week that … he will make his announcement on May 28. Donald Trump announced over the weekend that he would make an announcement in June and that “the announcement is going to surprise a lot of people.”

Surprise is unlikely, though, because it assumes people care what Trump has to say.

In the oversold Republican primary situation, a candidate is likeliest to get attention when there’s a screw-up, such as Jeb Bush’s five attempts last week to answer a simple question about Iraq, or the borderline racist questions posed to Cruz by Mark Halperin of Bloomberg News.

Graham, who once joked that prisoners at Gitmo should be punished by being forced to listen to Republican candidates, is not going to get attention saying sensible things such as that.

Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter @Milbank.

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