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Sen. Lindsey Graham wins the underdog CNN GOP presidential debate

WASHINGTON – Wielding humor like a sword and injecting big doses of political realism, Sen. Lindsey Graham R-S.C. broke out of the four-man second tier GOP pack at CNN’s presidential debate on Wednesday.

The underdog debate at the Ronald Reagan Library took place as the three outsiders in the 2016 Republican primary – Billionaire tycoon and reality TV star Donald Trump – retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson and former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina – are gaining the most traction. Trump and Carson are leading in the polls in an election season where conventional wisdom has been thrown out the window.

On tone and substance, Graham was the winner, not overly dwelling on front-runner Trump.

At the end of the debate, Graham, a hawk who brandished his military credentials through the session, dismissed Trump as a cartoon character who “gets his advice through television.”

Graham faced a combative former Sen. Rick Santorum R-Pa. and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal –they both came on very strong – with former New York Gov. George Pataki never finding his footing.

All four had nothing to lose. They are barely registering in the 15 men and one woman field.

“I am trying to lead this party to winning,” Graham said, as an angry Jindal suggested that what was really needed was a new political party to replace the GOP.

In one of the most memorable lines of the debate, Jindal said the arrest of a 14-year old boy, a Muslim, who brought a clock to school only put a spotlight on discrimination against Christians.

“The biggest discrimination going on in America is against Christian business owners,” he said.

“Let’s talk about the Christian florists, the caterers, the musicians” who refuse to serve same-sex couples because of religious objections, said Jindal. “Don’t shut down our businesses … for believing marriage is between a man and a woman.”

Graham said he was against gay marriage, but it was the law of the land.

Graham’s humor came through in several exchanges. On immigration, where Graham worked with Democrats to forge a bi-partisan comprehensive reform bill, which never became law, said the U.S. needed to come up with a better immigration system. And if you’re not willing to do that, then you better be like the late Sen. Strom Thurmond, who had four kids after the age of 67.

Said Graham, “I wasn’t the best law student…by the end of this debate it’ll be the most time I’ve spent in any library.”

Former Viginina Gov. Jim Gilmore is doing so poorly he did not quality for the underdog debate.