Finding youth in Sun City?

INDIAN LAND -- Sun City Carolina Lakes might be one of the few stops on the campaign trail where John McCain doesn't have to worry about being the oldest person in the room.

This was particularly true on Wednesday afternoon when McCain visited the sprawling retirement community east of Fort Mill with his 95-year-old mother, Roberta, in tow.

At 71, the younger McCain found an audience of peers at Sun City, not just in terms of age but also priorities such as health care and low taxes, two important issues for seniors.

"He's kind of one of us," said Dianne Stephens, who moved to Sun City from a suburb of Dayton, Ohio. "He's experienced the same types of things that a lot of us have."

Contemplating the other Republican presidential contenders, Stephens added, "They're more like our kids."

An audience of 200 saw a far more animated version of the candidate who campaigned in Rock Hill last month during a stoic "No Surrender" tour supporting the troop surge in Iraq.

This time, McCain tossed a microphone from hand to hand as he fielded questions. He held up a USA Today front page during a diatribe against pork barrel spending. He didn't seem bothered by a senior who fiddled with her cell phone as it chimed three separate times.

Afterward, he took his charter bus to a barbecue restaurant on U.S. 521, where he asked the owner to "show me your smokers" before disappearing down a hallway to the back kitchen.

It was more reminiscent of the McCain campaign, circa 2000, than the current edition, which lags in many national polls and has spent itself nearly broke, according to the latest cash-on-hand figures.

Before the barbecue field trip, McCain zeroed in on front-runners Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney in what is becoming a last-ditch effort to make up ground.

"I have been involved in every major national security issue since 1986," he said. "I haven't been the governor of a state, nor have I been a mayor. (But) I know these issues and I'll hit the ground running. I need no on-the-job training."

Different kind of Republicans

Sun City is at the forefront of a trend playing out across South Carolina: Retirees moving from areas such as Florida and the Northeast to take advantage of mild weather, a lower cost of living and easier access to grandchildren.

About 1,500 live there now, but 6,000 more are expected in the next four years.

Their brand of Republicanism breaks from the norm in South Carolina in that these voters are generally more concerned with economic policies than social issues such as abortion rights and gun control.

It is a constituency that would seem to play to the strengths of McCain, who has long faced skepticism over whether his moderate stances would appeal to social conservatives.

"These are more northern Republicans," said Nelson Thompson, 72, a newcomer from Alexandria, Va. "Taxes are a big factor. Where we came from up there, taxes are probably at least twice as high. I have a daughter in New Jersey -- her taxes are probably three times as high."

McCain seemed aware of that sentiment during his talk.

"I noticed Mayor Giuliani and Governor Romney were both arguing that the other one had raised taxes in the past," he said. "You know what the answer was? They both have. You can call it fees if you want to. You can call it a banana if you want to. But at the end ... people paid more to the governments they were the heads of."

Similar to McCain in the fast-approaching Iowa caucuses, the strength of Sun City's political influence will soon be tested. Bruce Miller, a Philadelphia native and founder of the Sun City Republican Club, is considering a future run for chairman of the Lancaster County Republican Party.

"People are starting to notice us," he told the audience before McCain spoke. "This is good. We can be a major force in helping our elected officials know our wants and needs. Our power lies in our combined strength."