A battle for veterans' votes

McCain arms himself with war record for S.C. campaign

February 18, 2000|By Ellen Gamerman | Ellen Gamerman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

GREENVILLE, S.C. -- Richard Herman is a typical soldier in the battle to elect Sen. John McCain. At a recent event, the 80-year-old South Carolinian came bearing the trademarks of McCain's veterans army: one hearing aid, one large-print book, one fading girlie tattoo his wife still calls a big mistake.

And one vow that a vote for McCain is his patriotic duty.

The McCain campaign has dubbed its veterans operation "One Last Mission" -- an electoral sortie directed at aging voters who have lived some of the same searing war history that now defines this candidate.

The campaign is betting that this time, after years of divided loyalties, former fighters will unify at the polls. The McCain team is counting on these votes, the last for some veterans, to swing tomorrow's South Carolina primary.

But the vote is elusive. These soldiers do not always go to the polls in large numbers, and they seldom vote as a bloc. They went Democratic in the past two presidential elections. Adding to the challenge, McCain's main Republican rival, Gov. George W. Bush of Texas, is aggressively courting them here, too.

But McCain can capitalize on a personal history that Bush lacks: 5 1/2 nightmarish years in captivity in a North Vietnamese prison camp. McCain's book, "Faith of My Fathers," a memoir about his family's three generations of Navy fighters, has become an emblem of his war experience and the loyalty it engenders among some voters. At a rally in Greenville yesterday, as music pumped over loudspeakers, three women stood in the front row shaking copies of the book like pom-poms.

"When he was in that prison, he stood by his friends," said Herman, a Marine in World War II who waited for more than two hours at a Greenville book signing Wednesday. "He never gave up. That's the kind of man he is."

Critical support

Several men -- two World War II fighters and one Vietnam veteran -- sobbed while standing before McCain at the book signing. Another brought a photograph of himself serving with McCain's grandfather, a four-star admiral. Others simply approached McCain respectfully, holding out their copy of the book and promising their support.

It is needed.

"There is no scenario in which John McCain can win South Carolina without the veterans," conceded McCain's political director, John Weaver, who marvels at the candidate's bond with this group.

"They don't even [need] to talk to him. They look at him. They pat his arm. I don't understand the power of it. But it's there."

The bonds may sound mystical, but they were built on a pragmatic strategy established from the first days of the campaign.

When the campaign began taking shape in January, McCain's POW and Naval Academy buddies launched a "Patriots Network" to enroll active-duty service members and veterans.

They reached out to small-town gatherings such as an 82nd Airborne fraternity or a local association of Pearl Harbor survivors. They put a veterans coordinator in every state and near military bases overseas.

In South Carolina -- home to 375,000 veterans, who have made up as much as 30 percent of the vote in past major elections here -- the votes are considered golden.

Bush also on offense

Yet the Bush campaign has hardly ceded this territory. The governor has launched his own "veterans brigade" of military celebrities to generate enthusiasm.

Tomorrow, the campaign will travel with Rep. Sam Johnson of Texas, a Vietnam POW, and last week it worked the state with Adrian Cronauer, a former armed-services DJ who was the inspiration for the film "Good Morning, Vietnam."

Among its endorsements, the campaign has garnered support from three Medal of Honor recipients from South Carolina.

"I think we are pretty close to splitting the veterans' vote down the middle," said retired Lt. Gen. Claudius Watts, who endorsed Bush and praises the governor's service in the Texas Air National Guard during the Vietnam War. "The veterans are not a monolithic group. All members of the armed forces can salute him and view him with great pride."

McCain has edge

A Time/CNN poll this week showed McCain narrowly winning the veteran vote in South Carolina, 48 percent to 43 percent.

Bush's veteran strategy has misfired at times. Earlier this month, Bush showcased an endorsement by J. Thomas Burch Jr., chairman of the National Vietnam and Gulf War Veterans Coalition and a fringe figure in the veteran establishment.

Standing with Bush at a rally in Sumter, Burch accused McCain of ignoring the needs of veterans -- the same charge he once leveled against George W. Bush's father. "He came home, forgot us," Burch said of McCain.

In Tuesday's Republican debate, McCain assailed Bush for associating with Burch, telling Bush, "You should be ashamed."

McCain has tried to mobilize veterans as his personal constituency.

In a VFW hall in Spartanburg yesterday, men abandoned their pancakes and sausage to watch McCain, who stood under a VFW seal and called them "my old, dear warriors."

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