The Caesar of Paint Creek, Texas

Could military veterans decide the Republican presidential contest?  They largely tilted the GOP race to war hero John McCain in 2008, by delivering the critical swing votes in South Carolina and Florida, and by offsetting the enormous surge of evangelical voters toward former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee in those two states.

And now it appears they are poised to do it again – this time for Texas governor Rick Perry, a former air force captain who’s the darling of veterans groups in Texas, and who just powered his way to the top of the GOP leader board following his dramatic entry into the race last Saturday.

Perry still has his work cut out for him, of course.   As the new GOP front-runner – he’s leading Mitt Romeny and Michele Bachmann by 11 and 16 points respectively in the latest Rasmussen poll – he’s now the object of intense scrutiny, and it’s not clear how well he – or his mixed Texas governing record – will fare under the glare of a national spotlight when a single gaffe or misstep can prove costly.

But most veterans groups, at least, appear to like Perry, thanks to his ongoing support for causes such as college tuition credit for soldiers on active duty. Even Texas Democrats like San Antonio’s Leticia Van de Putte, who are critical of Perry’s conservative leadership have joined forces with Perry on veterans’ issues, a key area of bipartisan cooperation that Perry’s likely to start touting on the presidential trail.

Perry and his fellow Tea Party darling Michelle Bachmann are scheduled to
campaign head to head this week in South Carolina, where a quarter of the GOP electorate is comprised of soldiers or war veterans, one of the highest ratios in the country.  Republican South Carolina Gov. Nikky Haley, who won election last November, has introduced legislation that wil make it easier for soldiers to vote in her state, another measure that is likely to help Perry.

In fact, Perry’s campaign has already gotten out in front on veterans issues with the support of two powerful PAC groups, Veterans for Rick Perry and the Jobs for Vets Fund.  Both groups were started by former Perry legislative director Dan Shelley, who also worked in the same job for Perry’s state house predecessor, George W. Bush.  They’re part of a widening constrellation of independent fundsing groups managed by close Perry aide Pat Toomey that are largely immune from public financing disclosure laws.

Any doubt that Perry is planning to promote his own war service as part of his presidential candidacy were erased this week when he suggested that the Pentagon and its generals preferred to have “one of their own” as commander-in-chief, a clear jab aimed at President Obama.   Perry noted that Obama could have served in the US military but “chose not to,” all but calling into question the President’s patriotism, of course, but without really saying so openly (a Perry trademark with political opponents).

Bachmann, like Huckabee in 2008, is likely to have an early edge over Perry with South Carolina’s Christian evangelicals, who constitute 60 per cent of the state’s GOP electorate, somewhat lower than Iowa’s where Bachmann just eked out a victory in the Ames Straw poll, confirming her status as a major GOP contender.

Bachmann has tried to tout her own military credentials, by citing her seat on the House Intelligence Committee, which gives her access to classified information, and an active role in shaping US foreign and defense policy.       But the closest she can come to claiming  veteran status is her father’s wartime service.

With Bachmann emerging as the winner in Iowa, and likely to consolidate her positon there, and Romney still the clear leader in New Hampshire, South Carolina – with its disproportionately high percentage of military voters – could well prove decisive to the outcome of the GOP race.  In fact, since 1980, no GOP candidate has won the Republican party nomination without first winning the “Palmetto” state, whose demographics far more closely resemble the nation’s than do Iowa’s or New Hampshire’s.

But some observers have cautioned that Perry might not want to overdo his military service, which largely consisted of flying cargo planes in the US, Europe and the Middle East from 1972-1977.   Unlike fellow Texan and GOP rival Ron Paul, for example, Perry never flew combat missions or participated in active fighting.

In an interview in April with with a Texas-based reporter, Perry even pooh-poohed his service, saying  “there was no telling what you were going to haul around on any given day, from high value cargo like human beings to the colonel’s kitty litter.”

That’s not exactly the most sympathetic portrait of the men and women in uniform whose votes Perry’s seeking.  And to some, it’s just another sign of how much Perry and his die-hard supporters tend to spin the former Democrat’s biography to create an outsized Reaganesque image and “persona.”

Not all Texas veterans remember Perry so fondly, in fact.  In 2003, he forced the state’s Hispanic veterans association to shut down after the group came out against his proposed redistricting plan.  Other veterans groups also lost their funding thanks to Perry’s deficit cutting drive.

But in an age where persona so often trumps politics – and some top Republicans are already rushing to crown Perry “Caesar” – don’t be surprised if the growing hype over Perry overshadows his hypocrisy.

Stewart J. Lawrence can be reached at stewartlawrence81147@gmail.com

Stewart J. Lawrence can be reached at stewartlawrence81147@gmail.com