Campaigning in this important primary state--where appreciation of military service runs deep--Texas Gov. George W. Bush promised to overhaul the Veterans Affairs Department's health care system from "top to bottom" if he becomes president.

Bush also continued damage control over his highly publicized foreign policy pop quiz last week, in which he could not name the leaders of three countries that have been prominent in the news.

Trying to show that his sense of humor remained intact, Bush aides instructed reporters to gather around the candidate after he completed an hour of grip-'n'-grin at Jimmy's Family Restaurant in Easley. "My wife, on the way up, said, 'When you get to South Carolina, don't try to be charming or witty,' " Bush said before stepping into his campaign bus. "Just be yourself. She also said, 'Don't get out there and try to show off and start naming all those leaders.' "

Jokes aside, Bush's visit was meant to send a serious message--that he is going to work hard for votes here. The state is crucial because it will hold the first southern primary and the second nationally, after New Hampshire. And it is one of two states that Arizona Sen. John McCain has targeted for victory--the other being New Hampshire, where he has been gaining on Bush.

Bush has stepped up his efforts in both states, and his strong pro-military speech today was clearly aimed at not letting McCain get the better of him.

The Texas governor sought to capitalize on his family's ties to the state--his father, former president George Bush, won both of his primaries here and remains popular--campaigning around Greenville and the western parts with former governor Carroll Campbell, Lt. Gov. Bob Peeler and House Speaker David Wilkins.

McCain, who has campaigned here about a dozen times, has made strong appeals to the state's military community and has a high-profile base of support, with Reps. Lindsey Graham and Mark Sanford, as well as former GOP executive director Trey Walker, backing his campaign.

In his second campaign stop of the morning, before 500 people gathered in front of the Pickens County Courthouse, Bush praised America's veterans and promised to rebuild the military, much as he did in a defense speech in Charleston several weeks ago.

Today, he added an appeal for better treatment of veterans, accusing the Clinton administration of not providing those who served in the military with adequate health services. "Health care for veterans is often a complicated and bureaucratic process, involving too many delays and uncertainties in coverage," he said.

Also today, the Bush campaign announced that it has hired Ari Fleischer, who had been spokesman for Elizabeth Dole's presidential campaign until shortly before she dropped out of the race. Bush communications director Karen Hughes said Fleischer, previously a spokesman for the House Ways and Means Committee, would bring crucial Washington experience to the Austin-based campaign operation. Fleischer got the job David Beckwith held briefly in the campaign before leaving in July over what Bush called "stylistic differences."