COLUMBIA, SC — (CNN) With a wide open Republican presidential primary in South Carolina, a common stump phrase Palmetto State voters hear is a push to take better care of our veterans.
That was Sen. Rand Paul’s message this week at a Concerned Veterans for America town hall at the historic Patriot’s Point site near Charleston.
“If I’m president, my number one priority in spending is taking care of defending our country and taking care of the people who defend our country,” he said to a group who showed up for political talk and pulled pork sandwiches.
GOP candidates scrambling to make themselves known in a 17-person field are targeting military and security issues in an early primary state where 12 percent of the overall population, or about 391,660 people, are veterans. South Carolina is also home to major military bases: Parris Island, Shaw Air Force Base, Fort Jackson, Joint Base Charleston and Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort.
“It feels like every other voter in S.C. is either active duty military, a reservist, a retiree or related to one of the three. Because of these numbers, national security and veterans issues are household issues for SC voters,” Jonathan Hoffman told CNN.
Hoffman is the South Carolina State Director for Americans for Peace, Prosperity, and Security (APPS), a nonprofit advocacy group, and also a JAG in the U.S. Air Force Reserves. APPS hosted Rick Perry last week and Marco Rubio on Tuesday in forums designed to bring national security issues to the forefront of the political dialogue.
Several attendees at Paul’s Concerned Veterans for America event Monday, which has Koch Brothers funding, lamented the crumbling state of the Department of Veteran’s Affairs Hospitals.
“The number one thing is the care of the veterans,” said Wayne Griffith, a 54-year-old Army veteran who now lives in Charleston. “They deserve the best for the sacrifices they’ve made for their country.
Griffith describes himself as conservative and politically engaged, having seen Rick Perry, Ted Cruz, and retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson at events in his state.
“It’s really hard to say if there’s one who stands out over the other ones right now,” Griffith said. “They all seemed concerned but we’ve all heard lip service in the past, we want to see action.”
Paul has support from Jonathan Lubecky, a 38-year-old retired Army Sergeant.
“He actually worked in a VA hospital and talks about a more efficient manner to run it,” said Lubecky. “I’m not saying you need to have worked in the VA and in the military, but I think it helps considering the problems we have today.”
In Rubio’s case, he engaged in a rapid-fire round of questions and answers on issues of national security that ran the gamut from Chinese cyber warfare to U.S.-Turkish relations.
Similarly to Paul, Rubio concluded his comments with a brief rally-around-the flag statement on the greatness of America and the American dream.
“I think the most important obligation of the federal government is to provide for our national security,” said Rubio. “If a nation is not secure, it cannot prosper and the American dream cannot grow.” He did not, however, include in that closing statement anything about U.S. military men and women when they return from being overseas.
Appealing and addressing veteran voters has been the focus of Perry’s campaigning as well here in South Carolina.
In mid-June, Perry strode through the South Carolina Military Museum in Columbia for a tour before he addressed a crowd who sweated it out in the city’s “famously hot” weather to see him speak. In that picture-esque setting of Patriot’s Point near Charleston, the Luttrell brothers, Morgan and Marcus, waited solemnly behind the governor, silently lending their support. Marcus Luttrell is the former Navy SEAL who wrote the book “Lone Survivor.”
Of the 2016 presidential candidates field, several contenders have military links. Lindsey Graham served in the Air Force Reserves for many years and just recently retired after reaching the mandatory retirement age.
Rick Perry also served in the Air Force as a pilot before he got into politics. Both of the medical doctors in the race, Dr. Ben Carson and Paul, have worked in VA hospitals.
Last week on Hilton Head Island, Perry again reminded voters of his military service.
“When Rick Perry announced that he was running for president in Texas, he was flanked by some prominent, moderate vets,” says Brian Jones, a Marine Corps veteran and editor-in-chief of Task and Purpose, a news and culture site for veterans. “I think presidential candidates can engage veterans in a substantial way. There’s always the fact that the VA is going to be a prominent issue moving forward in 2016.”
According to a CNN exit poll from the 2012 GOP primary, 21% of voters identified as veterans. Newt Gingrich, who crushed his next closest opponent in the primary Mitt Romney 40% to 28%, also won the support of veterans, raking in 39% of veterans. Romney got 32% of veteran support.
Unsurprisingly, Sen. John McCain won an overwhelming majority of veteran support in South Carolina in 2008 with 36% of veterans voting for him. His next closest competitor was Mike Huckabee with 29% of veteran’s support.
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