The first big-name Republican to attack Christie over Bridgegate is ... Lindsey Graham? Update: Graham "clarifies"

Perfectly rational in one sense, deeply surprising in another. And not just for the obvious “RINO versus RINO” reasons.

How the heck did Rand Paul lose the “bash Christie” sweepstakes to Lindsey Graham?

“It seems to me that this whole bridge thing reinforces a narrative that’s troublesome about the guy, he’s kind of a bully,” Graham told NBC News on Thursday on Capitol Hill, referring to the scandal over land closures on the George Washington Bridge that’s engulfed Christie over the past two days…

“If anybody in my office had done such a thing, they knew what their fate would be cause I’m not that kind a guy,” Graham said. “I just don’t see how people that close to him could have felt comfortable enough to do this if they thought their boss wasn’t of this mindset. Isn’t that just common sense?”…

“I think he’s going to have a hard time in the South, I really do. The edge is part of it. You know, he’s a little too slick by half,” Graham said.

He added: “I think the problem he’s going to have in the South is against the view of his actual positions because it’s hard for me to understand what he’s for and what he’s against on the social side.”

Exactly what I would have expected from Paul, not John McCain’s sidekick — especially after McCain named Christie first a few days ago on “The Tonight Show” when asked which Republicans he likes for 2016. When reporters finally cornered Paul on Bridgegate today, in fact, he muttered something about how much he hates being stuck in traffic and left it there. Was there some sort of Paul/Christie detente over the holidays that I missed? Or some low-grade Graham/Christie feud that no one’s been paying attention to?

The rational explanation is that Graham’s worried about a primary challenge this spring and can’t resist an opportunity to put the boots to the base’s second-least favorite RINO. But even so, that’s … not so rational. The conservative indictment against Graham is so long, and his partnership with the base’s least favorite RINO so well known, that it’s hard to believe he thought he could buy any cred by taking a few easy shots at Christie. On the contrary, according to the New York Times back in November, Christie reportedly told South Carolina Republicans after he was elected chairman of the Republican Governors Association that he wanted to go to South Carolina and campaign for Graham even though he’s running for Senate. That made perfect sense — Christie wants to ingratiate himself with the establishment down there before 2016 and Graham wants a vote of confidence from a big-name up-and-coming Republican to counter the daily attacks by tea partiers. Combining to quash a challenge from the right would be a feather in both of their establishment caps. And they’re natural allies on immigration and foreign policy, with Christie set to carry the pro-NSA, pro-interventionist McCain/Graham banner into battle against their mutual nemesis Paul in 2016.

If Graham’s willing to throw all that away for a little quick-and-easy piling on, it must be because he’s utterly convinced that Christie’s more of a liability in South Carolina than he is an asset. And he came to that conclusion, I assume, before Bridgegate, not after: No one thinks a scandal about New York traffic in which Christie hasn’t been directly implicated is so poisonous that it would completely transform his chances down south overnight. Say what you want about Grahamnesty, but he must have a decent read on the pulse of his home state to get elected repeatedly despite his reputation for RINOism. Maybe Christie’s 2016 odds are longer than we thought.

Update: Annnnnd, just like that:

Update: He must have gotten quite the scolding from Maverick:

“I finally got to see portions of the news conference. I’m very impressed with the contrite nature in taking responsibility. In today’s political environment it was a breath of fresh air and I think he handled it as well as he could,” Graham told CNN.

“It was very impressive,” he continued. “I don’t know the guy that well. The allegations, they’re not well, but I just watched it for 15-20 minutes and I’m very impressed. He took every question, didn’t dodge, I think he went a long way to helping himself today.”