An Associated Press dispatch from South Carolina cautions that the state's large voting bloc of military veterans may not break for John McCain. There's some truth in that analysis, but not necessarily for the reasons cited by the wire service.
According to the AP's Suzanne Schaefer, vets base their votes on more that just a candidate's military resume. Health care and the economy are also concerns this year, and (surprise, surprise) the AP found veterans who said they vote for a person, not a uniform. And, one of the reddest of the red states, they found a few vets who identified themselves as Democrats.
"..in interviews with some of the 413,000 veterans who live in this state of 4 million, few said they should be considered a bloc that votes in lockstep.
"I always vote for the individual," said Cecil Buchanan, a World War II Army veteran who said he's been a lifelong Democrat but could consider casting a vote for McCain. "I like his ideas."
Buchanan, 79, said he approves of McCain's idea of allowing veterans to visit private physicians instead of only being treated at VA hospitals, and his promises to rein in pork-barrel spending.
South Carolina's split primary dates — Republicans vote a week before the Democratic primary on Jan. 26 — has some veterans trying to decide when to vote. Residents here may cast their ballots in either primary, but not both.
Veterans worried about health care and the economy said they have to consider New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's work on behalf of medical care for National Guard troops, and also are attracted to Illinois Sen. Barack Obama for his ads on curbing the high cost of prescription medications.
Judging from Ms. Schaefer's analysis, you'd think that veterans were abandoning the GOP in droves, a suggestion that dove-tails nicely with polls conducted by the Military Times and other media outlets over the past year or so. Never mind that active duty personnel (and military retirees) remain overwhelmingly conservative and Republican. Even at the nadir of the Iraq War, their backing for the conflict--and President Bush's policies--ran far above the national average, despite claims of declining support. And never mind that the Times used a mail-in survey, a questionable polling methodology, at best.
There are similar problems with how the AP arrived at its latest conclusions. First, the wire service tends to lump all veterans in the same category, regardless of how much time they spent in uniform. That's a critical mistake, particularly in a states like South Carolina that are home to a number of military bases, active duty personnel, retirees and dependents. A 2004 study estimated that military retirees along contribute $1.7 billion annually to the state's economy. The overall impact of the state's military bases and population--largely divided between the Midlands area and Charleston--totals more than $7 billion a year.
Simply stated, the political priorities and perspectives of someone currently on active duty (or recent retirees) may be different than those who served during World War II, Korea or Vietnam. For older vets, issues like health care are definitely in play. Among active duty personnel and those who retired over the last decade, winning the War on Terror is a primary concern, along with military benefits and base closures.
That's why it's rather odd (some might say convenient) that Ms. Schaefer built her story around interviews with a World War II veteran, a 78-year-old Army retiree, and a former member of the South Carolina National Guard who is approaching his 60th birthday. Better yet, two of those men identified themselves as registered Democrats--hardly a majority in most military demographics.
To her credit, the AP reporter did talk with a 22-year-old guardsman, but in a state with a huge Army post (Fort Jackson), two Air Force bases (Shaw and Charleston), two major Marine Corps installations (Parris Island and Beaufort MCAS) and a host of Navy facilities in Charleston, it shouldn't be that hard to track down an active duty service member who's registered to vote in South Carolina. Or, for that matter, some of the thousands of younger military retirees who have settled in the state in recent years.
How will McCain's message play among that key audience? That's hard to say. His campaign in South Carolina has emphasized McCain's stalwart support for the War in Iraq, which will certainly endear him to younger military members. The Senator's proposed reform of military health care may also win support among recent retirees and dependents.
But Senator McCain's liabilities--support of amnesty for illegal aliens; opposition to the Bush tax cuts, the McCain-Feingold campaign finance bill; his endorsement of global warming legislation and criticism of plans to drill for oil in ANWAR--also resonate among military voters. South Carolina's military large population is hardly a monolith (the AP got that much right), and veterans of all ages and demographics can find plenty of reasons to vote for someone else, if they're so inclined.
And one of those reasons has been conveniently furnished by Ross Perot, the Texas billionaire (and 1992, third-party presidential candidate) who apparently has a little score to settle with McCain. On the eve of the Republican vote in South Carolina, Perot called Newsweek's Jonathan Alter, complaining about McCain's past infidelity, and refusal refusal to pursue reports that American POWs were left behind after the Vietnam War.
Perot's support for the POWs--and their families--is legendary, as is McCain's reputation as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam. Consequently, Perot's criticism of McCain on the POW issue might seem a bit strange. But, in his conversation with Alter, Perot left no doubt about his feelings toward the Senator, based on his marital problems after the war, and his subsequent stance on POWs who may have been left behind:
The Perot-McCain relationship goes back to McCain's five and a half years of captivity in Hanoi. When McCain's then-wife Carol was in a serious car accident, McCain's mother called Perot for help. "She asked me to send my people to Philadelphia to take care of the family," Perot says. Afterwards, McCain was grateful. "We loved him [Perot] for it," McCain told me in 2000.
Perot doesn't remember it that way. "After he came home, he walked with a limp, she [Carol McCain] walked with a limp. So he threw her over for a poster girl with big money from Arizona [Cindy McCain, his current wife] and the rest is history."
Perot's real problem with McCain is that he believes the senator hushed up evidence that live POWs were left behind in Vietnam and even transferred to the Soviet Union for human experimentation, a charge Perot says he heard from a senior Vietnamese official in the 1980s. "There's evidence, evidence, evidence," Perot claims. "McCain was adamant about shutting down anything to do with recovering POWs."
By his own admission, McCain was unfaithful to his wife after returning from Vietnam. As the Executive Officer and later, Commander, of a Navy A-7 unit in Jacksonville, Florida, McCain reportedly arranged frequent, weekend "cross-country" flights that allowed him to engage in extra-marital affairs. He divorced Carol McCain in 1980, shortly before he married Cindy Lou Hensley, the daughter of a wealthy Arizona beer distributor. In public comments, McCain has repeatedly taken responsibility for the failure of his first marriage. The Senator and his ex-wife have remained friendly, and she has even endorsed him politically.
On the other hand, Perot's assertions about McCain trying to "shut down" efforts to recover POWs are more difficult to pin down. Since the end of the Vietnam War, there have been frequent reports about Americans who were left behind, but those claims have not been substantiated. The wife of one Navy pilot, whose remains were finally returned by the North Vietnamese in 1989, has accused McCain of being "the driving force behind closing all the POW files, classifying records in order to keep the truth from the families and the American people." While damming, those accusations have never been verified.
Will the resurrected POW issue find traction in South Carolina, particularly among veterans? So far, none of McCain's rivals have touched that question, and it's rather doubtful that any will. Senator McCain's valor as a POW in North Vietnam makes him difficult to attack on that issue. Besides, why pick up the mantle when Ross Perot is willing to do the work?
At the end of his column, Alter notes that Perot won't be an idle spectator during this election cycle. He's promising to launch a website next month, filled with those charts he made famous during his 1992 bid for the White House. It's a fair bet that many of those graphs will be critical of Senator McCain. Perot's new website may be up and running before the GOP primary in Florida--a state with even more veterans than South Carolina.
Two things are certain: John McCain doesn't have a lock on the military vote in the Palmetto State, and Ross Perot isn't going away. Collectively, they may be enough to damage the Senator's chances in South Carolina--and beyond.