McCain Counting on S. Carolina Military Community

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South Carolina might be key to Sen. John McCain's presidential bid. The state, which holds its Republican primary Jan. 19, is home to thousands of military veterans. McCain is a war hero. The state's Democratic primary is set for Jan. 26.

ANDREA SEABROOK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Andrea Seabrook.

The Democratic presidential primary in South Carolina is two weeks from today. African-Americans will play a bigger role there as in any of the contest so far. And this weekend, the Clinton campaign is having to clear the air on the matter of race.

Senator Hillary Clinton surprised some people with her remark this week, quote, "I would point to the fact that Dr. King's dream began to be realized when President Johnson passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964." She went on to say, "That dream became a reality because we had a president who said we are going to do it and actually got it accomplished," end quote.

Then, former President Bill Clinton spoke out on Barack Obama's stance in the Iraq war, saying, this is the biggest fairy tale I've ever seen. Obama campaign spokeswoman Candice Tolliver told Politico.com, quote, "a cross-section of voters are alarmed at the tenor of some of these statements."

House Major Whip James Clyburn, an African-American from South Carolina told the New York Times that politicians should be sensitive about the words they use. And Democratic strategist Donna Brazile, also black, called the former president's words unfortunate. Yesterday, Bill Clinton went on the radio show of civil rights activist Al Sharpton and stressed his respect for Senator Obama and his campaign.

Now, the Republicans' presidential primary in South Carolina is just one week from today. Some 420,000 veterans live there and it's a constituency all of the candidates are reaching out to. For Arizona Senator John McCain, winning over veterans is key to his hopes of winning the state.

NPR's Brian Naylor reports from Charleston.

BRIAN NAYLOR: At the VFW Post 3433 in Ladson, South Carolina, just north of Charleston, Sam Waters(ph) sits a the bar, working on a Coors Light. It's midday, but it's hard to tell in the dim, smoky room. Waters served in the Marines and the Air Force 26 years in all. He says he votes in every election, otherwise, he can't complain. Next Saturday, he'll be voting for John McCain.

Mr. SAM WATERS (War Veteran): The reason is simple. He paid the price. He's been there, done that.

NAYLOR: Walters said he met McCain once at a campaign stop when the subject of McCain's being held prisoner of war by the North Vietnamese came up.

Mr. WATERS: He's talking a bunch of guys back there. Some sailor back in the banks. So I was down south while he was up north. He's said why didn't you come and get me? Well, I was on the Son Tay prison raid at North Vietnam and (unintelligible) corner so we try to come and get you. And he talks very well.

NAYLOR: While McCain can count on Sam Waters' vote, eight years ago, another Vietnam veteran may have grievously wounded McCain's 2000 campaign in the state. Jay Thomas Birch(ph), chairman of the National Vietnam and Gulf War Veterans Committee, declared during a rally for George Bush that McCain had come home and, quote, "forgot us."

While McCain's record on veterans' issues was defended by a bipartisan group of Senate war veterans, the incident, along with the whisper campaign against McCain helped win the state for Bush. This time around, there have been no such dirty tricks - at least not yet. And McCain, who spoke at the Citadel Military College here Wednesday night, is confident his military experience will be a net plus.

Senator JOHN McCAIN (Republican, Arizona; Republican Presidential Candidate): Well, I think it's certainly is helpful with a lot of South Carolinians who's had military tradition in the state. They have the Citadel. They have a very large National Guard and Reserve presence, and a lot of retirees from the military as well as the military bases. So it's helpful, but it's…

NAYLOR: To be sure, all of the Republican candidates for president are wooing veterans. Here's former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee during the GOP presidential forum last fall.

Mr. MIKE HUCKABEE (Former Republican Governor, Arkansas; Republican Presidential Candidate): And if I were president, I'd like to see us have a very plainly written, simple-to-understand veterans' bill of rights that would make sure that every single thing that these veterans have been promised is delivered. And it's delivered as the first fruits of the federal Treasury, before anyone else gets their nose in the trough. The veterans get their benefits paid, not on the basis of a limited budget, but on the basis of making sure that we keep promises to the people who have kept us free.

NAYLOR: Back at the VFW, such claims are taken with a grain of salt. Jake Mans(ph), an 83-year-old veteran of World War II has heard it all before.

Mr. JAKE MANS (World War II Veteran): Oh, yeah, a bunch…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MANS: …and stupid. It's a bunch of them that say, oh, we go give veterans everything, you know? Go protect veterans and that sort of thing, but that's a bunch of B.S. as far I'm concerned.

NAYLOR: You sound skeptical.

Mr. MANS: Well, yeah, (unintelligible). Yeah. I guess I am.

NAYLOR: Mans, by the way, says he is voting for Ron Paul, a Vietnam-era Air Force vet.

Brian Naylor, NPR News, Charleston, South Carolina.

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