While his rivals concentrated on Iowa, Sen. John McCain spent a second straight day barnstorming through South Carolina today with a message focused on military themes and appeals to the state's large population of veterans.
In Aiken this morning, an honor guard of aging former Marines in dress uniforms saluted the Arizona senator as he stepped off the bus while campaigning for the Republican presidential nomination.
At town hall meetings in Aiken and here, McCain promised to improve services for veterans and assailed President Clinton for what he said was neglect of the military and for basing foreign and defense policy decisions on public opinion polls.
During the conflict in Kosovo, McCain said, "everything this president did, rather than being driven by principle, was driven by polls." He charged that Clinton feared public reaction to U.S. casualties and thus ordered American pilots not to fly below 15,000 feet, reducing the accuracy of their bombing missions and causing unnecessary civilian casualties on the ground.
"That's immoral," McCain said.
McCain's strategists hope that his own military background and survival in a North Vietnamese prisoner-of-war camp will be a powerful appeal to Republican voters in this conservative and militarily hawkish state. Introducing McCain here, Rep. Mark Sanford (R-S.C.) told several hundred people at the Orangeburg Fine Arts Center, "If you are going to be the commander in chief of the armed services and put young men and women in harm's way, you yourself should have been in harm's way."
McCain decided not to contest Monday's Iowa precinct caucuses, the traditional first step in the presidential nomination process. Instead, he is banking on the Feb. 1 New Hampshire primary and the Feb. 19 primary here to provide a springboard for him to overtake the front-runner for the nomination, Texas Gov. George W. Bush.
McCain is in a tight race with Bush in New Hampshire but remains well behind the front-runner in South Carolina. McCain's allies here hope a victory in New Hampshire will translate into a McCain surge here and are already warning South Carolina voters to expect a heavy Bush counterattack.
Terry Haskins, the speaker pro tem of the South Carolina House, told the Orangeburg crowd: "The front-runner's campaign is probably going to start some attacks, some negative ads. It's already happening in New Hampshire."