Brothers in Arms Hit Road to Rally Support for McCain

Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 29, 2008; Page A08

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.

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