- The Washington Times - Friday, February 4, 2000

SUMTER, S.C. South Carolina's huge roster of veterans emerged Thursday as the battleground constituency in the Feb. 19 Republican presidential primary.
Gov. George W. Bush of Texas staked his claim to the veteran vote Thursday albeit by proxy as he offered up a phalanx of retired military officers to accuse Sen. John McCain of Arizona of ignoring Vietnam veterans.
"He hasn't been there for us," said J. Thomas Burch Jr., chairman of the National Vietnam & Gulf War Veterans Coalition, as he stood on a stage next to Mr. Bush after a star-spangled campaign appearance in front of about 500 supporters at the Sumter Courthouse, just down the road from Shaw Air Force Base.
Mr. McCain, also campaigning in South Carolina, fired right back.
"I do not need on-the-job training," Mr. McCain, a former Navy pilot and Vietnam prisoner of war, told an audience outside a waterfront home in Beaufort. "I am fully prepared to be commander-in-chief."
Mr. McCain declared that some veterans' groups have backed him and given him their highest awards.
"Have I fooled the veterans' organizations, or is there a little foolishness going on here?" Mr. McCain said.
With more than 400,000 veterans, about 10 percent of the population, South Carolina has the highest concentration in the country. Mr. McCain and his staff Thursday seemed to relish the idea of a campaign concentrating on veterans' issues, where he has focused much of his early campaigning in the state.
"Why don't we have a real good debate on national security and foreign policy, anytime?" Mr. McCain said, while riding in the back of his bus.
The campaign proposals by the two candidates on veterans are similar both have pledged to improve veterans' health care and other services by straightening out Washington bureaucracy.
Nevertheless, some Vietnam veterans say they feel betrayed by Mr. McCain's support for the United States' recognition of Vietnam under President Clinton.
After the Sumter ceremony, Mr. Burch said the senator hadn't supported his group's efforts on relief from the effects of Agent Orange and Gulf war syndrome. He called Mr. McCain "the leading opponent" of legislation to aid families trying to learn about men and women missing in action.
"That's why the men don't come out for him," Mr. Burch said.
Late Thursday, Mr. McCain's campaign released a statement from veterans who support Mr. McCain, asking Mr. Bush to repudiate Mr. Burch's comments.
"John McCain has earned the support of thousands of veterans for his years of service to our nation and to welfare of our veterans," said Orson Swindle, a former Vietnam POW. "He has stood at the forefront of nearly every serious effort to preserve our nation's commitment to our veterans."
While Mr. McCain directly addressed the issue, Mr. Bush, who served as a pilot in the Texas Air National Guard during the Vietnam War, showed off endorsements from a parade of veterans' groups, Medal of Honor winners and retired generals.
Retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Claudius Watts, who was president of The Citadel from 1989 to 1996, said he respects Mr. McCain's military service, including his years as a prisoner of war. But he said Mr. McCain's war record won't automatically win over veterans and he believes Mr. Bush is "the best man to be president."
"The military establishment is not monolithic. So many of us in the armed forces look to the issue and to the man," Mr. Watts said.
In his campaigning, Mr. Bush did make a pointed reference to Mr. McCain as a potential leader, saying, "There is a big difference between being somebody who had a distinguished military record and being someone who's trying to lead the country."
Mr. Bush also spoke about the present and future military.
"I want our future military to be lighter, more lethal, more agile, harder to find," he said. "We have the opportunity to redefine how war is fought and won."
He also pledged to reduce bureaucracy in veterans' affairs, saying, "We're not going to have lines of people who served our country asking, 'What about me?' "
He harshly criticized President Clinton's stewardship of the military. "We are overdeployed and undertrained," he said.
The Bush campaign's strategy in South Carolina is to blunt Mr. McCain's momentum after his New Hampshire win by painting him as too liberal for his own party and establish Mr. Bush's credentials as the true conservative candidate as he fights for a share of the veterans' vote.
The McCain campaign fought back throughout the day. Dan McLagan, spokesman for Mr. McCain's South Carolina campaign, said the senator has such positive support from veterans that he has a "veterans' chairman" in every county in the state.
"Veterans aren't monolithic," said Mr. McLagan, agreeing with Mr. Watts. "They don't all vote the same way." But he said Mr. McCain's proposals to improve veterans' benefits and health care "appeal across-the-board" to retired servicemen and women.
"He's been there," Mr. McLagan said. "He is a veteran. That doesn't mean one has to serve in the military to qualify, but he knows the specific issues."
Among the local residents at the rally in Sumter Thursday was Emery Miller, who owned a ball-bearing plant that supplied parts for Patriot missiles during the Gulf war. Mr. Miller said he had met Mr. McCain and considers him too liberal.
"He kind of scared me he sounded more like a Democrat than a Republican," Mr. Miller said. "No tax cuts? His voting record has been more on the side of the Democrats."
And former Sumter Mayor W.A. "Bubba" McElveen said a warrior who wasn't even on the political battlefield Thursday would likely influence the outcome Mr. Bush's father, former President George Bush, who visited Sumter at the end of Desert Storm to honor Carolina troops.
"I think that'll go a long way to getting [Mr. Bush] elected," Mr. McElveen said.

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