A caption in some editions of yesterday's Style section incorrectly identified two people quoted in an article on Republican presidential politics. Jim Gunn was on the left and Jim Karvelas was on the right. (Published 01/18/2000)

From the moment James F. Gunn swings his blue Ford wagon into the parking lot of Big Jim's coffee shop here, there is no mistaking this man's priorities.

One clue is the decal on his car from the Citadel, the military academy his granddaddy and 15 other relatives attended. Another is the sticker from the Camden Military Academy, his son's alma mater, just up the road. There's also the U.S. Marines sticker, the POW-MIA sticker, the American Legion ("paid-up-for-life member") decal, and the special-issue veterans license plate with the American flag.

Gunn's person is similarly adorned: He wears a Marines pin on his lapel, and scars from Korea on his scalp. "My head looks like the road map of Chicago," says Gunn, who directs a retired veterans organization here--a group started by a pilot who served as a prisoner of war in Vietnam with John McCain himself. Gunn--that's Sgt. Gunn to you--is a walking cliche, and proud of it. "I'm the guy who eats tacks for breakfast," he says. "Had 'em in my cereal this morning."

It would seem natural, then, for Gunn to back McCain, the war hero-turned-senator-turned-

presidential candidate. But then you would have to ignore two other items that appear on Gunn's bumper: twin "George W. Bush for President" stickers. It's true: Gunn is backing a National Guardsman.

"John McCain did a lot of heroic things--I'm not knocking him," says Gunn, as he and a friend, sipping coffee in Big Jim's, prepare to do just that. "But he's presenting himself like he's the only one who suffered in the military. McCain is saying, 'Because all these things happened to me, you've got to vote for me.' "

Strange though Gunn's disloyalty to his fellow warrior may seem, it's not half as odd as the explanation: Sgt. Gunn is convinced Capt. McCain, protege of Barry Goldwater, is, among other things, some sort of liberal.

"He's just like Clinton and Gore," says Gunn. "He's not part of the solution. He's the problem." On abortion, for example, McCain is "a jerk," Gunn ventures, despite his antiabortion voting record. "It's murder, it's destroying our country, and McCain isn't strong on this at all." Of the senator's vociferous support for campaign finance reform, Gunn says, McCain "is taking away my rights as a free-thinking American--and this is what I laid my life down for." McCain is even a dud on veterans and military affairs, Gunn says.

Call it the McCain Mutiny. Veterans like Gunn are causing problems for McCain with his most crucial constituency. As the state's Feb. 19 primary approaches, Bush's soldiers are doing their best to convince veterans that McCain isn't conservative enough for them. The charge is questionable. But, ominously for McCain, it appears to be sticking.

Warren Tompkins, Bush's man in South Carolina, boasts that the campaign's polling shows Bush is getting a larger share of veterans here than McCain. And McCain aides don't dispute there's a problem. "We probably don't have as much of the veteran vote as we should," says Phil Butler, a retired colonel who has just been named McCain's veteran coordinator in the state. "People don't know who he is, and secondly, there's some misinformation out there."

There sure is. People here have somehow swallowed the implausible notion that McCain is Ted Kennedy in a flight suit.

The town of Sumter, in central South Carolina, is dominated by Shaw Air Force Base, just down the road. Inside McCain's town hall meeting today, eight posters of the former Navy flier in uniform adorn the walls inside the hall, and McCain himself enters to a Sousa march. The introduction is a standard one: how McCain was shot down over Hanoi, how he spent years in solitary confinement. McCain starts off by praising a local man who served in Desert Storm, and introduces a man in the crowd "with whom I had the privilege to serve in the Hanoi Hilton." He jokes about how he "intercepted a surface-to-air missile with my own plane."

McCain talks at length about World War II veterans. He plugs Tom Brokaw's book and "Saving Private Ryan." "The good news is we're beginning to appreciate them," he says. "The bad news is we're not taking care of them. We're not giving them the health care we promised them." This generates the first applause for McCain, and he follows up with a similar line: "How are we going to get another generation of Americans to serve if we don't take care of those who already have?" The applause gets louder. He promises to restructure the veterans health care system. "It's the highest priority," he says to more applause.

Speaking at another event, in Camden, McCain stands in front of a larger-than-life poster of him in his flight suit. Red, white and blue balloons form arches over his listeners, many of whom are wearing their veterans caps. "It is a national disgrace," he says of the veterans health care system. Then it's a call for higher military pay. "There will be no food stamp army when John McCain is president of the United States," he shouts. Next, he blasts Clinton's national security team, "not one of whom has ever spent one minute wearing the uniform of this country." He closes by telling the veterans in the crowd: "I am honored to be in your company."

The crowd loves it. "I've got to vote for a military man," says Jennifer Neitzel, wearing a McCain sticker on her Air Force sweat shirt. She served in a medical unit during Vietnam and has two sons in the military. Bob Wolf, an Army veteran of Korea and Vietnam, walked into the McCain office in Columbia recently to offer his services. Asked why, Wolf talks at length about McCain's capture by the Vietnamese and all the gory details of his ordeal: the broken arms, the stab wounds. "He's proven he can stand up to anything, being a prisoner of war for 5 1/2 years," Wolf says. "He's proven he's a man."

To make sure all the state's veterans get those details, McCain has named veterans coordinators in each of the state's 46 counties, all reporting to Butler, an artillery battery commander in Vietnam. The campaign has sent out mailings to veterans ("I ask you to join me for one last mission . . ."), distributed a nine-minute video to veterans' households, and will call at least 50,000 veterans. On Jan. 26, a group of McCain's fellow prisoners from the Hanoi Hilton will begin a three-day bus tour of the state. Lindsey Graham, a popular South Carolina congressman who backs McCain, has been touting the senator as "the conservative who will stop Bill Clinton's betrayal of our military." Graham thinks the message will get out. "He's literally their commander," he says. "I've seen people come up to him and salute him."

Harder to explain are the many veterans who leave meetings with McCain unsatisfied. In Sumter, several of those filing out of the McCain meeting voice their displeasure.

George Thom, a prisoner of war in Germany during the Second World War, isn't impressed with McCain's military appeals. "I put in 187 days in solitary confinement, one piece of bread and one glass of water a day, so I have a good idea of what he's been through," says Thom. "But I'm going to vote on the issues. I want to know what he's going to do, not what he did." Thom came to McCain's speech with a business card listing his concerns: base closures, survivor benefits and military health care. But McCain's answers don't satisfy. "I think I'll go to Bush," he concludes.

His difficulties with veterans don't surprise the candidate himself. "You've got to proceed on the premise that in '92 and '96, Bill Clinton took the majority of veterans' votes," he says. "The Bush people were astonished back in '92--I was with him--saying, 'How come these veterans aren't rallying to our side?' "

There are about 400,000 of them in South Carolina, potentially enough to dominate the Republican primary, in which only about 300,000 people are expected to vote. But only about 100,000 of the 400,000 are registered Republicans, and they don't vote solely on veterans affairs any more than, say, Jews vote solely on policy toward Israel. Even in a best-case scenario, Richard Quinn, McCain's South Carolina consultant, hopes to pick up two-thirds of the 100,000 Republican veterans, and register up to 40,000 more in time for the primary.

But so far, McCain doesn't have the numbers he needs. And a lot of that has to do with George W. Bush, whose campaign has been waging a successful propaganda war here. Searching for a "fire wall" to contain McCain's conflagration in New Hampshire, where the senator leads in the polls, the governor has settled on South Carolina. This is one of the most conservative states in the Union--and its veterans are among its most conservative constituencies. Bush, therefore, has been doing everything he can to appear more conservative than McCain--on taxes, gay rights, abortion and campaign finance.

Never mind that the idea of Bush as arch-conservative and McCain as bleeding heart is preposterous. The "liberal" McCain has received ratings of 76 percent to 93 percent from the Christian Coalition in recent years for his Senate record; he has opposed gay employment rights, the Clinton budget and gun control, while backing missile defense, a balanced budget amendment and Clinton's impeachment. The "conservative" Bush, meanwhile, is blamed by some Democrats for ripping off their education, technology and defense policies.

Still, the McCain-as-liberal image spreads. "McCain is a Democrat-lite," says Wayne Cockfield, a disabled Vietnam veteran who sits on the board of South Carolina Citizens for Life. Cockfield's group spreads vitriol about McCain because of "flip-flops" on abortion and campaign finance reform, which the group calls a "free speech restriction act." "I'm a pro-lifer," Cockfield says, "and most pro-lifers in this state are supporting Bush." (McCain's Senate votes received rankings ranging from 80 percent to 93 percent from the National Right to Life Committee, but he has antagonized some antiabortion activists by saying they are mainly interested in perpetuating conflict over the issue.)

The McCainites are well aware they're being outflanked on the right. Graham, his conservative credentials secured by his impeachment heroics, has been braving pneumonia to vouch for McCain in appearances in the state. "You get conservative interest groups attacking him, and when y'all guys"--that's the media--"treat him with respect, it makes people think he's a Democrat."

Another problem is that many veterans hold McCain, because he is a veteran, to a higher standard than other candidates. If anything has gone wrong for veterans in Washington in recent years--and plenty has--why not blame McCain? Bush, after all, wasn't anywhere near Washington. McCain, therefore, feels veterans' wrath for cutbacks in the medical services available to retirees at military bases, and substandard Veterans Affairs hospitals. Some object to McCain's efforts to improve relations with Vietnam. Some POW/MIA activists have even convinced themselves that McCain is covering up the truth about the missing--perhaps because he was brainwashed by his captors. "They're just mad," says John Weaver, McCain's political director.

At Big Jim's coffee shop, Blane Lawson, a retired Air Force man, confesses he doesn't know much about the issues, but he says Gunn has convinced him that "Bush would be more conservative than McCain."

Even Big Jim Karvelas, the coffee shop proprietor, gets an earful. Karvelas is only vaguely aware that the candidate is coming to town. "What's his name, McNair?" he asks. The conversation turns to McCain's wartime heroism, and Karvelas seems to be coming around. "I might vote for the McNabb," he says. "If he's a war hero."

Gunn, however, will have none of it, and Karvelas backs down quickly. "Oh," he tells Gunn, apologetically, "I thought you were for him."

CAPTION: In the Air Force town of Sumter, S.C., Sen. McCain pledges to improve veterans' health care. But some vets are convinced he's a liberal.

CAPTION: Korean War vet Jim Gunn, left, selling the "more conservative" George W. Bush over John McCain to restaurant owner Jim Karvelas in Sumter, S.C.

CAPTION: Vietnam War vet and former prisoner of war McCain, stumping for votes in Camden, S.C. Margaret Charles Mullikin, 6, rests up for the primary.