Red, white and blue bloods on a battle footing for McCain

Mon, Nov 3, 2008, 00:00

Mark Hennessyhears invocations of Vietnam and patriotism during a McCain 'surge' in Springfield, Virginia

THIRTY-FIVE years ago, John Warner, then secretary of the navy, read intelligence reports leading up to the release of American prisoners of war, including those concerning the future Republican presidential candidate John McCain.

On Saturday, in his final speech as a member of the US Senate after three decades of service there, Warner came to the yard of a removals company in Springfield, Virginia, to endorse McCain's bid for the White House in the latter's final pitch in the state to win voters' support.

"I got to know John McCain from those intelligence reports. Some words came across loud and clear: duty, love and honour of one's country," said Warner, who helped to build the candidate's political career after McCain had spent time on Capitol Hill.

Time and time again, McCain had put "America first, politics second", said Warner, who was once married to actress Elizabeth Taylor.

The crowd, standing for hours in the scorching sun, chanted the refrain back.

The memories of Vietnam were everywhere in Springfield on Saturday.

Orson Swindle, who shared a cell in the "Hanoi Hilton" with McCain, told the crowd: "We have come a long way. We have got to get this man elected," putting all emphasis possible on the "got".

"About 15 months ago everybody thought John McCain was dead-on-arrival in the race for the Republican nomination. This has got to be the most important election for America," said Swindle, now a lobbyist on Capitol Hill.

Before the candidate's late arrival, a giant, white-bearded veteran strode around the crowd, asking any holders of the Purple Heart - given to American servicemen if they are wounded in action - to identify themselves.

More than a few of the 6,000-strong did. To each, he threw a McCain/Palin campaign T-shirt over the heads of others, and respectfully saluted, before marching off with giant steps in search of the next wounded veteran.

Flag and country stand for a lot in Virginia.

Having arrived late from an earlier rally elsewhere in the state, McCain pounced on Barack Obama's declaration that his faith in America had "been vindicated" by his dramatic victory in Ohio during the primary battle.

"His faith in America was vindicated? Vindicated? My country has never had to prove itself to me. I have been honoured to serve it," said the Arizona senator, who was joined on stage by his wife, Cindy, and daughter Megan.

The state of Virginia, known as "The Old Dominion", has not voted for a Democratic candidate in a presidential election since Lyndon Johnson ran in 1964 after John F Kennedy was assassinated, but it looks as if it may do so this year.

Smooth-talking former governor of Virginia and senator George Allen called on "fellow Virginia patriots" to help support a 72-hour "surge" by party volunteers in the remaining days of the campaign to get out the vote.

Allen was himself tipped by Washington insiders to be the most likely Republican candidate in 2008, but his campaign died before it ever truly began after he was heard on tape issuing a racial insult against a supporter of his opponent in the 2006 Senate race.

Doing the warm-up for McCain, South Carolina senator Lindsay Graham lauded Cindy McCain jokingly "as kind, warm-hearted woman who is a great businesswoman and owns a beer distributorship. What more could a Navy man ask for?"

Criticising Obama's well-funded campaign, Graham, who has appeared with McCain throughout the campaign, said: "Sure, they have raised a whole lot of money, but I don't think that Virginia is for sale. Do you?"

The media, too, faced Graham's ire for supporting, he claimed, Obama's campaign. "The good news, friends, is that they are about to get their answer."

Fans of the conservative, Rupert Murdoch-owned Fox News, the crowd chanted back, "Fox, Fox, Fox."

The Republicans are seeing enemies everywhere as they attempt to rein in Obama's lead in Virginia and elsewhere. The polls, said Jim Gilmore, who is seeking to take over Warner's seat, "are designed to discourage us from voting".

In the campaign's final days, much of the debate at state and federal level has been about taxes, and particularly in the key Fairfax County district in Virginia where householders now pay $5,000 a year on their properties.

McCain has seized on the different figures that have emerged from the Obama camp about the latter's tax plans, which have put the threshold at which higher rates would come into play variously at $250,000, $200,000, or as low as $120,000.

One of the lower figures has come from Mr Obama's vice-presidential running mate, Joe Biden, who has made a number of gaffes during the campaign. "Joe the Biden, eh? He is the gift that just keeps on giving, isn't he?" joked McCain.