It's just after dawn in this genteel seaport town, and the bells
on the front door of the Moose Mountain Cafe are already jangling
with activity. The first people to amble in - and be hit with the
smell of freshly baked muffins - are six military veterans.
They've come to talk politics - and may be worth listening to,
because veterans are a key swing vote in South Carolina's Feb. 19
Republican presidential primary.
The state's 373,000 veterans are being courted by straight-
shooter and fellow vet Sen. John McCain - and by Texas Gov. George
W. Bush, who tells this typically far-right constituency he's the
As the men settle in, it's clear both candidates have made
inroads with this all-Republican group. Two support Bush. One backs
McCain. Three are undecided.
Yet as the discussion evolves, the undecideds lean toward McCain.
Their yearning for honesty trumps the fact that he's more liberal.
In fact, during the two-hour conversation the group delves deep into
the qualities of stellar leadership - and does not dwell much on
John Grisillo, a trim 1987 West Point graduate, puts it this way:
"On the issues I'm aligned with George Bush. But there's a thing
that comes from my gut. It says, 'This is the time for character -
for an un-Clinton candidate.' "
Mr. Grisillo says McCain fits that bill partly because of the 5-
1/2 years he spent in Vietnamese prisoner-of-war camps. "He's been
through a crucible that nobody else has," he says. And while that
alone doesn't make McCain fit for the presidency, "it's enough of a
difference in character building - and in being comfortable being
Such independence is key, Grisillo says. "If you're going to be a
leader, you've got to be comfortable being alone - and not stick
your finger in the air and see which way the wind's blowing."
But lest anyone think McCain is getting a free ride with this
group, Bush supporter Arthur Blair pipes up. This West Point
graduate served in Korea and later taught at South Carolina's
Citadel military academy, where he worked for another former POW,
Adm. James Stockdale, who was Ross Perot's 1992 running mate. "I'd
do anything for that man," Mr. Blair says, adding with
characteristic Southern flair: "He could park his car in my
bellybutton." But "the fact that he was a prisoner of war wouldn't
make him a better presidential candidate."
There's plenty of skepticism of McCain here, too. In fact,
there's a distinct generation gap, with the two older vets
supporting Bush and the four younger ones backing McCain.
Blair wonders why the Arizona senator has been in Congress so
long but hasn't talked about his accomplishments. …