McCain Goes After Fla. Military Voters

Tailors message to masses with military ties -- but are they so easily targeted?


JACKSONVILLE, Fla., Jan. 27, 2008 — -- 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."

"Affinity group voting is a real thing in this country," said Gary Langer, ABC News' director of polling. "People tend to vote for someone with some common shared experience that is important to them. To the extent John McCain is a celebrated war veteran and can use that to appeal to veterans, he certainly will, and hope that it works."

In South Carolina, which is home to an estimated 400,000 veterans, McCain beat former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, 34 percent to 26 percent. He lost to Huckabee among non-vets by 29 percent to 26 percent. In Michigan, McCain beat former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, among veterans 41 percent to 32 percent. He lost to Romney among non-vets, 38 percent to 28 percent.

But Langer and other political analysts say it may be a mistake to look at the military vote as monolithic, in terms of party allegiance, support for the war in Iraq, or what issues are most important to them.

"One thing I think that's been a myth, is that military families only care about Iraq, and every other issue doesn't matter as much," said ABC News political consultant Matthew Dowd. "As we've seen the economy rise across the country [as a concern], the economy is now a big issue among families, as big an issue as anything."

Dowd said veterans have become less Republican since 2000, when they voted overwhelmingly for President Bush. And, just as it has occurred among the general citizenry, many people with military backgrounds or allegiance, have turned against the war in Iraq.

"I think he has put himself in a difficult position, relating to Iraq because ... I think there is a significant growing portion of veterans and military families who disapprove of what's going on in Iraq, and he's been so strong on that, I believe at some point, they're going to start moving away from him," he said.

Langer said, even when appealing to veterans, it may be unwise to ignore stress support for the war, over addressing economic worries.

"When the economy goes bad, there's usually not much oxygen in the room for other issues," he said.

ABC News' Bret Hovell contributed to this report.