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."
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."
He vowed to push for better veteran medical care and benefits as his "first priority" and railed against "a president who doesn't seem to care" about military service members.
McCain's effort to woo veterans in South Carolina began more than a year ago. Phil Butler, who fought in Vietnam and is McCain's state chairman for veterans, recalls meeting the senator before he had declared his candidacy.
A dozen veterans chatted with him on that January day, as McCain began to develop a pitch that would use veterans to highlight his strengths -- his personal story as a POW, his experience with heroes in the war, his service to a cause larger than politics.
Problems with blunt talk
Yet for all its benefits, the blunt-talking veteran routine can raise questions.
On his bus yesterday, McCain was asked about his past use of the term "gooks" in referring to his North Vietnamese captors. Asian-American groups have received e-mail messages taking note of McCain's use of this expression, considered a slur. McCain stood by his choice of words.
"I will continue to refer to them in probably language that might offend some people here because of their beating and torturing and killing of my friends," he said on his bus, the "Straight Talk Express."
"I hated the gooks, and I will hate them as long as I live."
Some old soldiers -- particularly McCain's fellow Vietnam vets -- see in him the final chapter to a divisive war.
"I don't know if I'd call it redemptive, but there's some sense that this has come full circle," Keith McLeod, a McCain backer, said of the Vietnam War, which left both men disabled. "He knows what was involved. People think the world of him -- people that have been there."
In front of voters, the McCain campaign is anything but reluctant to trumpet his military past.
At the front of the Greenville rally stood Diane Underwood, who, as a nurse at Clark Air Force Base in the Philippines, tended McCain just after his release from Vietnam.
Underwood volunteered for McCain before any of his aides knew of her connection to him.
But yesterday McCain pointed her out from the stage, and when he waded into the crowd, she shouted into his ear to rest up and lay off the doughnuts on his bus.
"He's not a politician," she said. "He's an American."