By Krissah Williams Thompson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 29, 2008
AKRON, Ohio -- The men gathered for breakfast around the long table at a Bob Evans restaurant here consider Sen. John McCain a brother. Most have never met him and never will, but he is a veteran, just like them, and that is enough.
"He is one of us, a military man, and he has never forgotten who we are," said retired Maj. Gen. Edward Mechenbier. "He is a person that I could look at with great admiration and pride and say, 'He is my commander in chief.' "
McCain has never attracted huge crowds and mass followings the way his opponent, Sen. Barack Obama, and his own running mate, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, have. But throughout his campaign, the former prisoner of war has enjoyed the fervent backing of a fraternity of veterans and their families, who rallied to his cause even when he looked like a sure loser in the Republican primaries and now provide a key core of support in the final days of his quest for the presidency.
More than 240 retired generals and admirals have endorsed McCain, and veterans -- mostly older ones who fought in Korea and Vietnam -- form the backbone of his campaign's "victory centers." They travel the country to tell the story of McCain's imprisonment in Vietnam, they man phone lines, and they push fellow veterans to give McCain money and support.
Early this month, three of the campaign's most notable military supporters -- Mechenbier and Col. Thomas Moe, who were POWs in Vietnam, and Capt. Leslie Smith -- traveled through Ohio on a three-day bus tour to rally support for McCain. At one stop after another, at veterans nursing homes and memorial parks, at small gatherings and in restaurants, they shared their war stories and received a hero's welcome.
Veterans along the way said they support McCain partly because of their shared experience and partly out of concern for the nation's security. Although polls show that terrorism and the war in Iraq have faded as issues for most voters, they remain prominent in the minds of veterans, many of whom said they do not trust Obama to run the military.
"All of us have been fighting, shot and wounded, and we know how dangerous the world is," said George Manos, 75, a Korean War veteran who wore his VFW post's dress uniform to the breakfast at Bob Evans. Obama, he said, "does not seem to realize how dangerous the world is."
As a group, veterans lean Republican, and a Washington Post-ABC News poll in late August showed McCain leading Obama by 54 percent to 37 percent among them. Many of the nation's 19 million veterans live in some of the biggest battleground states of the election, including Ohio, Pennsylvania and Virginia, giving McCain a built-in boost. And, unlike other groups, such as younger voters, veterans traditionally turn out in large numbers.
Veterans can also be powerful campaigners, engendering a level of respect and interest that other types of supporters cannot, particularly when the country is fighting two wars.
Marcia Burke, 59, who drove an hour with a brace on one leg to hear the veterans speak at a stop near Cleveland, said she was "honored to be in their presence because of what they have done for our country and what Senator McCain has done."
She and others in the Ohio crowds reflected the Republican base -- traditional conservatives, many older, mostly white. Some were veterans; others were from military families. Many waved flags, and many others wore them -- embroidered on jean jackets and ties or reflected in earrings with red, white and blue jewels.
Their bond is marked by their definition of patriotism. At the breakfast stop in Akron, Mechenbier, who was shot down over North Vietnam in 1967, asked an intimate gathering of 15 military reservists and representatives of local VFW posts to set aside the issues in the campaign and consider one question as they decided between McCain and Obama.
"When it comes down to people like us, the question is: Which one would I be more proud to have go around representing my country?" said Mechenbier, who was a POW for six years. "And on a more personal basis, which one would I be more comfortable saluting as my commander in chief?"
Mechenbier lives in Beavercreek, Ohio, and retired from the Air Force in 2004 after four decades of service. McCain is the first candidate he has campaigned for, and he serves as chairman of a Veterans for McCain chapter near his home. After breakfast, Mechenbier pulled an Air Force coin out of his pocket and read aloud the core values of the service inscribed on it -- integrity first, service before self and excellence in all we do. "This is what John McCain represents," he said.
Obama, who did not serve in the military, has attracted some support among veterans groups, particularly younger veterans who have served in Iraq or Afghanistan and want to see U.S. troops return from Iraq soon. According to a report by the Center for Responsive Politics, Obama has received more money from troops deployed overseas than McCain has through June. At that time, Obama's donations from deployed troops totaled $60,642, compared with $10,665 for McCain.
There are also groups of veterans, some backed by liberal advocacy organizations, that have produced Web sites and online ads opposing McCain and questioning whether he has the temperament for the presidency.
The older veterans drawn to the bus tour voiced few doubts about McCain's temperament or what he would do with the military, but a couple expressed concerns about his support for veterans issues.
Unlike Obama, McCain did not back legislation this year that would pay tuition and other expenses at four-year public universities for veterans who have served at least three years since the 2001 terrorist attacks. McCain said at the time that he did not support the bill, which passed 75 to 22, because it would be a disincentive for service members to become noncommissioned officers, whom he called "the backbone of all the services." McCain co-sponsored a bill that would have required troops to serve more time to get full benefits.
When a question about McCain's votes on such bills came up at the breakfast, Col. Moe said, "Now, ask yourself, does it make sense that John McCain, who has served and sacrificed so much for this country, would not support veterans? Is it logical to you for a man who has served his country as a war hero? Most of these bills had a lot of pork in them."
Moe is respected among Ohio veterans and was given a raucous ovation at the Republican National Convention when Palin highlighted him in her speech. As he boarded the bus, en route to a memorial park in Canton, a police officer and Army veteran pulled him aside for an autograph.
"We've got to win," the officer told Moe, who had lived within a few feet of McCain for a time in Hanoi.
At each stop, Moe told of watching McCain through a pinhole drilled through his cell door after he returned from brutal torture sessions.
"Even today he cannot lift his arm to salute the flag he serves," Moe said. "Sometimes I would see him coming back from a particularly bad torture session walking with his arms on his knees to hold himself up. John, in all the pain he was in, would stand up and give me a big smile and thumbs-up. . . . John McCain has got the grit to see us to victory, and he's never going to run up that white flag, because that's death."
The crowd in Canton stood and applauded, just as they did in Sandusky, a town of about 25,000 near Lake Erie.
"How a person deals with challenges is important. If you're on the fence, listening to these veterans might help you make a decision," said Karen McTague, 54, treasurer of the Ottawa County Republicans.
It is what she doesn't know about Obama that worries her. The Democratic nominee has spoken frequently about his Christian faith, his commitment to national security and his love of country, but McTague said she still harbors fears about his background because Obama's father, whom the candidate hardly knew, was raised as a Muslim.
"If it looks like he appeals to Muslims, those countries may think they have opportunity," she said.
One of the last stops on the bus tour was Strongsville, a 45,000-people town outside Cleveland where U.S. flags lined the main street and were draped over a white gazebo that stood in the center of town.
Mayor Thomas Perciak had "God Bless America" piped in over the sound system to greet Moe, Smith and Mechenbier and rounded up as many people as he could to hear their speeches.
"I've walked around from group to group, and I've said, 'We have an American hero who wants to be president, let's support him,' " Perciak said, before posing for a picture with the other veterans who had come to campaign for their brother.
Polling director Jon Cohen contributed to this report.