McCain Courts Military in South Carolina
Arizona Senator Predicts Primary Win in State That Ended His 2000 White House Bid
By ALEX FRANGOS
January 17, 2008; Page A6
GREENVILLE, S.C. -- John McCain is looking for deep support from his military brethren to win South Carolina -- the state that ended his presidential bid eight years ago.
Mr. McCain sees a big difference this time. "We were not in a war in 2000," he said here yesterday. "I'm the only one who is really qualified to be commander-in-chief."
After conceding a loss Tuesday night in Michigan's Republican primary, the Arizona senator turned his attention to South Carolina's significant population of active-duty military and veterans.
"I have long admired the deep patriotism of the people of this state," the Navy veteran said in Charleston. "So many of your sons and daughters risk their lives today to keep the rest of us safe, as so many South Carolinians have done in past wars," he said.
The Republican race for president arrives in South Carolina in some disarray. "It is a chessboard extraordinaire," with three candidates having won primaries and no clear leader, said Republican strategist Tony Fabrizio, who isn't affiliated with any campaign.
Mr. McCain is hoping to nose ahead of the pack with a win here Saturday, much of it with the support of the state's sizable military presence. The only one of the major candidates who has served in the military, he upped the ante yesterday by predicting a South Carolina victory, something he declined to do before the Michigan primary.
"We will win South Carolina," he said at a campaign event in Greenville. His aides say a victory here would propel him through Florida's Jan. 29 contest and into the all-important "Super Tuesday" primaries Feb 5. They aren't saying what it means if he loses.
Mr. McCain lost South Carolina in 2000 after outside groups made what turned out to be wild accusations about the senator's integrity on a host of issues, including his military record. This time Mr. McCain has a rapid-reaction force, including many veterans, to refute such attacks.
That force was put into use Tuesday when a mailer arrived in some South Carolina homes accusing Mr. McCain of distorting his record as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam. Orson Swindle, a close McCain ally and former prisoner of war, dismissed the mailer as coming from "conspiracy-theory people" and saying such attacks on Mr. McCain aren't new. "It's slander, it affects voters, obviously," he said. "It's a bit crazy, too."
The military vote is "very important," senior McCain adviser Steve Schmidt said yesterday. "John McCain speaks the language of the men and women who serve in the military." Mr. Schmidt and other campaign aides said the military vote alone isn't enough to win, but it is a key part of his strategy.
McCain campaign aides are hoping Mr. McCain and his rivals -- Mike Huckabee, Mitt Romney and Fred Thompson -- divide the evangelical vote, leaving the state's sizable population of military and independent voters to Mr. McCain.
Mr. Huckabee is seen as Mr. McCain's main rival. The Southern Baptist minister has emerged as the favorite of the state's Christian conservatives, especially since he upset Mr. Romney to win the Iowa caucuses. Mr. Romney split the state's party establishment early on with Mr. McCain but has yet to gain traction among rank-and-file Republicans suspicious of his Mormon faith and social-issue flip-flops. Mr. Thompson entered the Republican race late and counted on Christian conservatives' support -- only to see them suddenly flock to Mr. Huckabee amid his Iowa success.
The McCain team has reason for optimism on the military front. Veterans carry heavy weight in South Carolina's Republican politics. They were 14% of the adult population in 2000, according to the Census Bureau, but 27% of voters in the Republican primary, according to exit polls. Though Mr. McCain lost South Carolina to George W. Bush in 2000 by 53% to 42%, he won the veteran vote 48% to 47%, according to exit polls.
South Carolina is home to 400,000 veterans, according to the Census Bureau. It has high numbers of military personnel stationed in-state and abroad. Almost 29,000 active-duty soldiers claim the state as their legal residence, making up about 1% of its population -- only nine states have a higher percentage. And there are 66,000 soldiers stationed here, constituting about 2% of its adult population, greater than all but eight states.
At campaign stops yesterday, Mr. McCain hammered home his pro-military message about caring for the troops, resolving the Iraq war and improving veterans' health care. He spoke glowingly of the 2,000 South Carolina National Guard and reserve troops who are in Afghanistan and called out veterans in the audience.
And as he often does on the stump, he read a quote from George Washington about the importance of looking after veterans. "The willingness with which our young people are likely to serve in any war, no matter how justified, will be directly proportional as to how they perceived the veterans of earlier wars were treated and appreciated by their country," Mr. McCain said, echoing President Washington.
That message plays well with voters such as Gary Wells, 73 years old, a Greenville resident and veteran who said he served as a Russian linguist in military intelligence in Berlin during the Cold War. He came to a McCain event in Greenville yesterday undecided between Mr. McCain and Mr. Romney. But he liked what Mr. McCain "said about the veterans and the military," particularly the senator's plan to give veterans an insurance card for routine visits to be used at any doctor, rather than having to go to Veterans Administration hospitals, he said. Mr. Wells calls VA hospitals "really horrible."
The Arizona senator made his first stop here after his New Hampshire triumph at the Citadel military college last week. His last major public event before the primary is scheduled to be Friday evening on the decommissioned aircraft carrier U.S.S. Yorktown, in Mount Pleasant, S.C.
Mr. McCain's surrogates also spread the military message yesterday. "Let's make sure the military is well-led by somebody who understands their world," said Republican South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham.
Cindy McCain, the senator's wife, talked about their two sons who are serving, one at the Naval Academy, the other in the Marines. At a McCain townhall meeting in Spartanburg, S.C., Mrs. McCain said she supported her husband's run, in part because "it's about my children being safe, my sons particularly, your sons and daughters...that they serve with honor and dignity and come home with dignity."
Veterans and their spouses fill the seats at almost every McCain event, donning blue "Veterans for McCain" stickers. Yet even they acknowledge their ranks are only part of what will make up a McCain victory. "John McCain has a very loyal base among the veterans," said John McGraw, 65, who served in the Navy's River Patrol Force in Vietnam. Speaking before a McCain event yesterday here in Greenville, he said the military vote is "not enough. He has to get other individual Republicans."
--T.W. Farnam and Jackie Calmes contributed to this article.