BLYTHEWOOD, S.C. – Mitt Romney has ex-POW John McCain vouching for him. Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum highlights his time on the Senate Armed Services Committee. And former House Speaker Newt Gingrich frequently calls himself an "Army brat" who grew up on military bases.
While Texas Gov. Rick Perry and Texas Rep. Ron Paul are the only GOP candidates to have worn a military uniform, all of the Republican presidential contenders are emphasizing their military ties these days in a state that's home to 413,000 veterans and eight military bases, with thousands of people on active duty.
"My purpose in life was to never be the president of the United States," Perry says as he campaigns ahead of South Carolina's primary Saturday. "My purpose has always been to serve my country and my state whenever they need or they call. That's our duty as Americans."
Perry's days as an Air Force pilot in the 1970s and his father's B-17 tail-gunner missions in World War II are staples of his South Carolina message as he looks to right his struggling campaign.
Paul, a flight surgeon in the 1960s who made his name as an antiwar congressman, is filling mailboxes with five-page letters that include a picture of him as a young draftee in a full-brimmed Air Force hat. "Let me begin by telling you that the troops know first and foremost that I am one of them," he writes.
There's a reason for the intensive courting: As long as South Carolina has been instrumental in deciding GOP nominees, the state's voters have rewarded candidates with military service. Every GOP primary winner since Ronald Reagan in 1980 has been a veteran.
This year may end that streak. Polls show Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, leading the pack. With the economy pushing U.S. involvement in foreign conflicts to the back of voters' concerns, some in South Carolina argue that GOP voters aren't pining for the biggest hawk this time.
"Financially, people are in dire straits right now," said state Sen. Lee Bright, a backer of Michele Bachmann before she left the race. "They realize that the more money we spend overseas the less money they are going to spend at home."
Nonetheless, most of the candidates have spent considerable time along the South Carolina coastline, wooing active-duty military members and veterans — many of whom lean toward the GOP — clustered around the bases near Charleston that for many years fueled the state's economy.
Perry, for one, has struck an aggressive posture lately, pledging that as president he would send troops back to Iraq to prevent Iran from exerting too much muscle in the region. On one upstate swing, he solemnly inspected a memorial garden and read markers to five Medal of Honor winners. He was accompanied by a former Marine captain with burn scars over half his body from the explosive device that hit his vehicle in Iraq and killed some of his comrades.
That veteran, Dan Moran, delivered a full-throated endorsement of Perry before a rapt audience. "For what it's worth, coming from somebody who had the honor and privilege of being able to spill some blood for his country, this is the man and this is the time," Moran said. "This country needs him."
Perry also has tried the personal touch, at one point pulling up a chair at voter Linwood Mizell's table to share more with the Army veteran and Purple Heart recipient.
Despite the special attention, Mizell held back. "I really haven't totally made up my mind," he said.
Romney, for his part, has campaigned with McCain, the 2008 GOP presidential nominee and Vietnam veteran, and seems to talk up the military everywhere he goes in the state.
"This is a proud military state," Romney said Saturday in Sumter. A day earlier, Romney was on Hilton Head Island for a veterans' event attended by hundreds.
Meanwhile, Santorum has traveled the state arguing that Democratic President Barack Obama is determined to shrink the Pentagon. The Republican insists the cuts will hurt national security and he often seeks out spouses and parents of military members to hear their concerns.
"I will not cut defense," Santorum pledged recently in Charleston. "I will not reduce the budget deficit by cutting the central role of the federal government. In fact, I will allow the Defense Department to grow to make sure that we are not cutting the benefits and the pay of our men and women in uniform."
Associated Press writers Philip Elliott, Jim Davenport and Julie Pace contributed to this report.