Proud military state could narrow Republican battlefield today
South Carolina veterans, active-duty officers comprise large proportion of eligible voters
All week long, Marco Rubio has been making the same request at campaign stops in military-friendly South Carolina. And all week long, he's loved the reaction.
"This is my favourite part," the Republican presidential candidate told a crowd at a Columbia, S.C., hotel on Friday, the day before today's crucial state primary.
"If you're a veteran, or have someone in your family who's serving us in uniform now or in the past, will you please raise your hand so we can thank you?"
In this case, arms hoisted from about half the attendees. There were cheers, applause and whistles. Rubio beamed.
In a state that's home to eight military bases and Fort Jackson, the largest Initial Entry Training Centre in the U.S. Army, the Florida senator was tapping into that patriotic block of American voters most likely to be affected by the next armed conflict overseas.
It's a logical strategy for South Carolina, where 25 per cent of the electorate is made up of people who are either on active duty or who have previously served in the military.
With the Republican primary polls opening this morning, Rubio appeared to be reaching out to this crowd in the hopes of replicating his surprisingly strong third-place showing in Iowa earlier last month — a result that made him the darling, briefly, of the GOP establishment.
But his opponents have also tweaked their outreach in a bid to win over security-minded veterans and active military personnel.
Some of the messaging has been surprisingly focused.
Switch on the TV in Columbia in recent days, for example, and you might catch Ted Cruz's hyper-targeted ad appealing to one very specific community — the Fort Jackson army base.
"President Obama is decimating our military, threatening 3,000 jobs at Fort Jackson. That's wrong," the spot claims.
Elaine Cooper, 62, recently attended a Cruz event at the Military Museum here in Columbia, where she said the content of the Texas senator's speech was almost entirely devoted to veterans issues and national security.
As for Fort Jackson, about 20 minutes to the east, that's a household name in the Palmetto State.
"I mean, Columbia has Fort Jackson. Enough said, OK?" Cooper said. "Most people receive their initial training there. I can't tell you how I've travelled across the country and people tell me, yeah, Columbia, that's where they received their training."
Uniformed officers over at the massive base were guarded about talking politics, lest they appear partisan or disrespectful to any present or future commander in chief.
But military personnel did agree a funny thing happens around South Carolina when they dine out still wearing their army fatigues. People are compelled to show their gratitude.
"Oh, I've been offered meals in the past. People are very nice," said Lieut.-Col. Adam Lewis, touring the sprawling the base with his 12-year-old son, Isaac. "When I'm in this uniform, I get it all the time. It's a very kind community."
Sgt. First Class Kelsie Hagan, stopping for lunch at Fort Jackson's PX complex food court, routinely gets greeted by strangers and civilians wishing to pay their respects.
"This is a military town. You get a lot of 'Thank yous,' a lot of 'Thank you for your service,'" said Hagan, who has been in the military for 35 years, including deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan. "People know what we sacrifice. They want to tell us."
An affection for Bush?
It's little surprise, then, that Republican candidates gearing up for the primary also recognize the powerful voting influence of veterans here.
Criticizing a beloved wartime president, for instance, might be seen as ill-advised. So far, however, it doesn't appear to done much damage to Republican candidate Donald Trump.
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Retired air force pilot Jeff Nedrow, who lived for four years in South Carolina, said he was disappointed by Trump's remarks last week disparaging former president George W. Bush.
"That's our president. For my generation, for the recently retired, he was our president, he was a fighter pilot like I was," said Nedrow, who is 45. "There's an affection of Bush, and especially people in the older officer corps like him."
Certainly South Carolina has historically been favourable to the Bush family, says David Woodard, a Republican consultant and political science professor at Clemson University.
"This state has had a lot of affection for the Bushes and I think it still appreciates Jeb. But George W. And George H.W. were not competing against five other people, they were just competing against one," Woodard said.
Despite the insults, Trump nevertheless appears to be maintaining his lead in the polls, though a new NBC News/Wall Street Journal/Marist poll of South Carolina voters on Friday had that narrowing to about five percentage points over Cruz, with Rubio in third.
A Fox News poll on Thursday had given him a 13-point lead over Cruz in South Carolina.
The fact that nobody in the Republican field this election has military experience suggests that may not be much of a deciding factor this time.
As Columbia resident John Long, who attended Rubio's morning rally on Friday, said: Military credentials are one thing; faith credentials are another.
So long as "God and country" are in the mix with the military, he said, he's happy.
"There's not a Christian church anywhere that doesn't preach exactly the same values that we preach in the military," Long said.
"The very fact you have such a strong military presence in the Bible Belt, and that's also where the most people volunteer for the military? You think that's a coincidence? Because to me, they go hand in hand."