The military is revered in South Carolina, home to eight bases, the Citadel military college and veterans who comprise 15 percent of the voting population.
Yet polls show that in the U.S. Republican presidential primary two candidates without any personal military experience, Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich, are running stronger than two veterans, Ron Paul and Rick Perry.
A Jan. 15 Insider Advantage state poll showed Romney ahead with 32 percent and Gingrich in second with 21 percent. Support for Paul and former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum stood at 14 and 13 percent, respectively, and Perry trailed at 5 percent.
“Perceived weakness, military inexperience, is not such a weakness this time given the economic climate,” said Peter Feaver, who served as director for Defense Policy and Arms Control at the National Security Council during the Clinton administration, in a telephone interview.
Four years ago, Nolan Mole, a retired Air Force pilot, picked Arizona Senator John McCain instead of Romney in the party’s presidential primary because the former was a hero in the Vietnam War while his rival was seen as a “draft dodger” for seeking deferment in the Vietnam era.
“That stuff was a bigger deal back then, but it don’t matter as much now,” said Mole, 65, in a Jan. 11 interview at Crybabies Tavern, a favorite of veterans near the Marine Corps Air Station in Beaufort, South Carolina. He’s come round to Romney, he said, because the former Massachusetts governor is the only Republican this year who “can take it all the way.”
Romney, 64, winner of the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary, avoided serving in Vietnam after obtaining deferments on academic and then religious grounds. At the time, full-time students couldn’t be conscripted, and Mormon missionaries could also delay military service.
After a year at Stanford University in California, Romney went to France as a 20-year-old “minister of religion” for 2-1/2 years, between July 1966 and February 1969, and returned to complete his studies at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, in 1971. Ineligible for other deferments after graduating, his name was entered in the 1970 draft lottery and his number wasn’t called.
None of Romney’s five sons, all born between 1970 and 1981, has served in the military.
Santorum, 53, who came in second in the Iowa caucuses and is being backed by Republican religious leaders, was 16 when the last of the U.S. troops pulled out of Vietnam in 1975 -- two years after the draft ended. As a senator, he spent eight years on the Armed Services Committee.
The military backgrounds of the candidates surfaced in New Hampshire during a Jan. 7 debate when Paul called Gingrich a “chicken hawk” for advocating policies that would send troops into combat zones while failing to serve himself.
Gingrich, 68, said he “never asked for deferment. I was married with a child. It was never a question.” He also pointed out that he grew up in a military family; his stepfather served 27 years in the U.S. Army.
Paul, 76, who served as an Air Force doctor between 1963 and 1965, countered: “When I was drafted, I was married and had two kids, and I went.”
According to his military records, Gingrich registered for the draft in 1961 when he turned 18. The draft board contacted him two years later, by which time the law had been amended and it was no longer compulsory for fathers to serve.
When asked about not serving, Gingrich said in a 1985 interview in the Wall Street Journal, “part of the question I had to ask myself was what difference would I have made. No one felt this was the battle-line on which freedom would live or die.”
Paul has raised more money from active members of the armed forces than all of his Republican rivals combined, according to the Washington-based Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks political giving. He collected $95,567 between January and September, according to the latest available statistics. Romney raised $13,300, Gingrich $4,900 and Santorum $750.
Still, the Texas congressman’s positions on defense issues are outside the Republican mainstream. He would bring all troops home, end sanctions against Iran and stop all U.S. foreign aid, including to Israel. Paul has vowed to cut $800 billion from the defense budget in four years.
In a candidates’ debate last night, Paul was asked about whether his proposed cuts would lead to job losses in a state with one of the highest unemployment rates at 9.9 percent.
“I want to cut military money. I don’t want to cut defense money. ” he said. “Just because you spend a billion dollars on an embassy in Baghdad, bigger than the Vatican, you consider that defense spending. I consider that waste.”
Perry and Paul both boasted of their military service with Perry saying, “I lived through a reduction of force once, and I saw the result of it in the sands of Iran in 1979. Never again.” Paul responded to say: “I, too, served in the Air Force for five years during the height of the Cold War” and therefore “I’ve had a little bit of experience.”
Brian Frank, 36, from Gaffney, South Carolina, respects Paul’s time in the military and his unorthodox policy proposals.
“All conflicts can be ended through talking and I do not want to see any kid having to die when he doesn’t have to,” Frank, who left the Army in 2000 after serving seven years as a regular soldier, said in a telephone interview on Jan. 13.
Frank is a minority in a state where veterans are “easily identified and mobilized” and the rhetoric that appeals to them is “part and parcel of conservative values about sacrifice and volunteerism, support of country, citizenship,” according to Dave Woodard, a political science professor at Clemson University in Clemson, South Carolina, and a Republican political consultant.
Perry, 61, was counting on his stint as an Air Force pilot in the 1970s to appeal to South Carolina voters. He’s run ads featuring veterans such as Dan Moran, a former captain in the U.S. Marines who survived the 2004 assault on Fallujah, Iraq, that left half of his body with third-degree burns.
Jonathan Smith, 38, a former Marine, said he is paying more attention to whether candidates sound credible on national security rather than them having worn the uniform.
“A background in the military does not necessarily mean you know what you are talking about,” he said.