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Lindsey Graham: Will Americans Vote for a Bachelor President?

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WASHINGTON -- Lindsey Graham is aiming to buck 130 years of tradition.

American voters haven't elected an unmarried president since 1885, the same year the Washington Monument was dedicated on the National Mall and the Statue of Liberty arrived in New York.

Graham is barely registering in the polls. But if he were to win the White House, he would join an elite club that includes just two previous presidents unmarried at the time of their election. James Buchanan, who preceded Abraham Lincoln's presidency, never married. Grover Cleveland won election as a bachelor, but married a woman while he was in office who was under his care and 27 years his junior.

While there was less emphasis in the media about the private lives of politicians during that era, the absence of women in their lives did not go unnoticed. Buchanan was rumored to have a romantic relationship with a male senator and Cleveland faced accusations that he secretly fathered a child he was supporting financially.

"The President is a bachelor, and bachelors, time out of mind, have been not only the greatest sinners of the race, but the most susceptible of fascination," a cheeky New York Times reporter wrote in an 1858 article about Buchanan. "Cain was a bachelor and so was Judas Iscariot."

Views of marriage --- and of those who opt out of it -- have evolved, of course, since the late nineteenth century. If successful in 2016, Graham would in many ways be pioneering new territory. In a time when media coverage and candidate messaging relies heavily on visual images and perception, Graham can't turn to a wife or children in campaigns like his rivals. That could pose a hurdle, said David Woodard, a professor of political science at Clemson University who worked on Graham's congressional campaigns in the 1990s.

"America elects not only a president but also a First Family and a First Lady," Woodard told CNN. "You have a little bit of an image problem there because he doesn't have a wife and kids at home. I think that's one thing that's really different, and I think harmful frankly."

Indeed, many of Graham's contenders use their traditional nuclear family ties to their political benefit. Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton often reminds voters that she is a grandmother. Texas Sen. Ted Cruz brought his young daughters on stage after he announced his candidacy and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum's family stood behind him when he declared last week.

Graham's singlehood has dogged him throughout his political career, prompting occasional questions from reporters and others about his own sexual preferences, but the senator says he's comfortable with who he is.

"I have family. I'm not married," Graham told Boston Herald radio in May when asked whether his personal situation could be a liability. "The bottom line is, I'm OK with me. I think I've led a good life. The question for the country is, can I take care of your family?"

While Graham may not have the same familiar situation as his competitors, he still has close family ties. On Monday, when Graham announced his candidacy in Central, South Carolina, his sister, Darline Graham Nordone, introduced him. During his speech, Graham touched on his personal life, and how he was brought closer to his extended family and community after both his parents died while he was young.

"Those of you who've known me for a long time know I've had some ups and downs. As a young man I lost parents, struggled financially and emotionally," Graham said. "There are a lot of so-called self-made people in this world. I am not one of them. My family, my friends, neighbors and my faith picked me up when I was down, believed in me when I had doubts. You made me the man I am today."

Graham moved in with his aunt and uncle after the death of his parents when he was in his early 20s. He went to law school, joined the military and joined the South Carolina House of Representatives in 1993. Two years later he won a seat in Congress and then moved to the Senate in 2003.

While many emphasize the negative aspects of running a campaign as a bachelor, it can also have benefits. The history of political campaigns is wrought with stories of how family can also be a liability: For years, candidates have struggled with poorly behaved teenagers or spouses who bring unwanted attention to their efforts.

During his career, Graham has actually used singlehood to his advantage. Unencumbered by a need to be home with family, he is a constant presence on media programs and travels abroad often as a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Bachelorhood, Graham, says, is just part of who he is.

"I like being Lindsey Graham," he said in the Boston Herald Radio interview. "I'm by no means perfect, but I like who I am."