McCain Goes After Fla. Military Voters

Charles Corbo stood in a ballroom at the Raymond Kravis Center for the Performing Arts in West Palm Beach, Fla., waiting to see and hear the man he wants to be the next president, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.

Corbo, 69, is a veteran of the U.S. Coast Guard, in which he served in 1959 and 1960.

"I was a peacetime guy," he said. "John McCain is the hero. What he went through, and the other Vietnam vets, I really admire. But I admire John McCain the most. I love this country, and I love John McCain."

It is voters like Corbo to whom McCain is appealing in his quest for the Republican presidential nomination. In Florida, the military vote — veterans, active duty members of armed forces and their families — are especially important, because the primary here, unlike New Hampshire, Michigan and South Carolina, is closed. Independents, among whom McCain is strong, will not be able to vote in this contest.

So, McCain has even more incentive to flash his credentials as a veteran and war hero, to attract votes from among the 40 percent of Florida Republicans who, the New York Times claims, have "ties" to the military.

At McCain campaign appearances, he often pauses to point out the veterans in the audience — often stooped, white-haired figures wearing caps, identifying them as former Marines, soldiers, sailors, or airmen who served in Korea or World War II.

"I want to thank you for your service," McCain says, in an almost reverential tone.

The audience is always hushed as McCain ends almost every speech by citing the metallic bracelet that he wears on his right wrist that bears the name of Cpl. Matthew Stanley, killed in Iraq in December 2006. Lynn Savage, Stanley's mother, gave it to McCain at an event in New Hampshire last summer.

In his standard stump speech, McCain says Gen. David Petraeus, not Russian President Vladimir Putin, should have been named Time's man of the year for 2007.

He says only he, among the presidential hopefuls, criticized Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld for the early policies in Iraq that failed, that only he supported the surge publicly and loudly, when it was unpopular to do so.

He grows loud and agitated as he vows to "catch Osama Bin Laden, if I have to follow him to the gates of hell."

These points, positions and promises seem to find a natural and receptive audience among those who have served in the military.

"I'm in a state that has enormous military involvement," McCain told reporters, arrayed before him the other day in the back of his campaign bus, the Straight Talk Express. "I'm trying to convince them that I'm best qualified to be commander in chief."

Florida would appear to be fertile terrain for such a pitch. Nearly 2 million Florida residents are veterans. Thousands of others are active duty service members, stationed at the dozen or so military bases scattered about Florida.

Rudy Elder, a Vietnam War vet from Cape Coral, says he hasn't made up his mind about who he will vote for on Tuesday. But he likes McCain's military background, and admires what he endured as a prisoner of war for five years.

"It's a big factor in my vote," said Elder, at a McCain campaign event. "His service was very honorable, what he did as a POW — not coming back when he had the opportunity, staying with his troops. He showed a lot of dedication, and he seems like a very honorable man. A lot of that stems from his service in the military."

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