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For veterans, 'no greater honor' than visit from McCain

He's trailing in the polls, lagging in the money race and trying to rebuild his once-powerful presidential campaign. But to the veterans at Rock Hill's VFW lodge, John McCain still qualifies as royalty.

"To have one of our own, a comrade, to come, we're just honored," said post commander Johnnie Robinson. "He's a pretty straight shooter, you know. He's a strong supporter of the military. We don't have enough of them in Washington."

When McCain's charter bus pulls into the VFW's West Main Street parking lot Saturday morning, Ken Hood will be waiting. An infantry medic who tended to wounded soldiers in Vietnam, Hood is now captain of the 20-member VFW honor guard. His men have spent weeks planning for McCain's arrival.

"It's a great thing," he said. "We're talking about a guy that was a prisoner of war. Went through Hades, and came back alive. To me, there's no greater honor. I'm proud to have him come here."

That veterans would represent one of McCain's strongest constituencies comes as no surprise. It's the fact they've become one of his only constituencies that few could have predicted.

Two years ago, McCain was considered the odds-on favorite for the GOP nomination in 2008. But his staunch support for the war in Iraq and backing of an immigration bill unpopular with many conservatives took the life out of his campaign.

"He probably won't get the nomination," said Jerry Brown, a Vietnam vet. "He's been too loyal to the United States. You know it's true. If you stand up for the United States, you've got so many people backstabbing you, it's not even funny."

Earlier this summer, McCain's national campaign laid off dozens of staffers, and his S.C. operation was reshuffled. Several top aides voluntarily agreed to keep working for no pay.

Now, he's rebuilding at a time some of his rivals are gaining momentum. But if there's a right period to have trouble, supporters say this is it, five months before primary votes are cast. And McCain's camp says it relishes the underdog role.

None of that matters to Brown, who plans to show up Saturday: "What this is, is not politics. It's patriotism," he said.

The son and grandson of Navy admirals, McCain spent more than five years as a prisoner of war in the infamous "Hanoi Hilton" in Vietnam.

Thirty years later, McCain's ties to the military are at the heart of his campaign. He's using his "No Surrender" bus tour through South Carolina to collect care packages for troops serving in Iraq and Afghanistan.

At town hall meetings, McCain hears a familiar message from veterans, said Orson Swindle, a campaign volunteer who also was held at the "Hanoi Hilton." Speaking from a McCain bus in Council Bluffs, Iowa, Swindle described a recent event.

"Every person who got up and asked a question started off with, 'Senator, I'd just like to express my admiration and respect for what you've done.' It's that way everywhere I go where we're around veterans. Awe is not the right word. It's just very respectful and admiring."

One afternoon earlier this week, a handful of guys sat at the VFW's bar. Vietnam vet Robert Gilbert talked about what McCain's visit means to him.

"Anybody who fought for this country and got the highest medal you can get stands for something," Gilbert said. "Thank God he's still living. Even though I'm a Democrat, I will still shake his hand. He's a soldier."

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