Sen. John McCain speaks during a campaign event for Republican presidential… (Richard Ellis / Getty Images )
Reporting from Conway, S.C. — When a C-17 military cargo jet roared overhead in the middle of one of Mitt Romney’s rallies in South Carolina this week, the Republican presidential candidate paused mid-sentence. “That’s the sound of freedom right there,” he said, as the audience filled with gray-haired veterans whooped and applauded their approval.
Hoping for a victory in this state’s Jan. 21st primary, four years after his fourth-place finish here, Romney set out this week to win over South Carolina’s huge bloc of veterans. In that effort he leaned heavily on his new surrogate and former navy pilot John McCain, whose ability to put together a coalition of veterans and military families was key to his victories in South Carolina and New Hampshire four years ago when he defeated Romney for the Republican nomination.
At events in South Carolina over the last two days, Romney expounded on the themes of patriotism, fidelity to the Constitution and service to country that have been a growing focal point of his stump speech.
The former Massachusetts governor described the presidential race ahead as a battle for the “soul of America.” And he repeatedly introduced McCain by citing a verse from the hymn “America the Beautiful” that he said “touches my heart most deeply” – “Oh Beautiful, for heroes proved in liberating strife, who more than self their country love, and mercy more than life” – going on to describe McCain as “a man who continues to prove he loves his country more than life.”
At a late afternoon rally in Charleston on Thursday, McCain repaid the compliment by criticizing President Obama’s “naiveté” and arguing that the nation would improve its standing in the world if Romney were to win the election in November.
“This president has conveyed the message to the world that we are weak and we are withdrawing,” McCain said, arguing that Obama has “left Iraq for political reasons” and has drawn down U.S. troops in Afghanistan “overriding the recommendations of the military leaders that he appointed.”
“This man,” he said, gesturing to Romney, “understands the need for a strong military and a strong national security policy. We have to tell the Iranians and others that we will not stand for encroachments, for abridgments of our freedom and aggressive behavior, no matter where it is in the world.”
“And it does not mean that President Romney is ready to go to war,” McCain said, “but as Ronald Reagan used to say ‘peace through strength’ – that is what Mitt Romney is committed to.” Making an appeal “especially to our military and our retired military and all of you who support them,” he added, “We need a new commander in chief.”
At the rallies in Charleston and Conway on Friday with McCain and South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, Romney kept a steady focus on what he describes as Obama’s failed economic policies. He repeatedly charged that the president had engaged in “crony capitalism,” which he described as “a belief not in free markets and free people pursuing their dreams, but instead in a government that pays back favors to the people that took care of them.”
As examples, Romney cited Obama’s recent recess appointments to the National Labor Relations Board – appointees that he referred to as “union stooges” – and the Obama administration’s allocation of stimulus dollars to companies with ties to Democratic fundraisers, including the solar company Solyndra, which went bankrupt not long after receiving a $535-million loan guarantee from the federal government.
“This kind of crony capitalism kills jobs and it kills innovation,” Romney said. “The president says he wants to get solar energy going and so he puts a half-billion into Solyndra. But he doesn’t understand that kills innovation….Because across this country I’ll bet there were a hundred billion little businesses starting up to find new ways to provide solar energy, with different ideas. When he picks one and says we’re putting a half-billion dollars in that one – guess what happens to the others? They can’t get funders; they can’t get investors; they can’t get venture capitalists; they can’t get their mom to invest in their business, because the government has chosen their favorite.”
“He not only wasted government money,” Romney continued, “he made it more difficult for entrepreneurs and innovators to come up with the new ideas of the future. This president doesn’t understand how this economy works; it’s time to get a president who does.”
Romney did not mention the new drop in unemployment figures, which were released at around the same time that his morning event outside of Myrtle Beach got underway. Instead, he criticized the president for “racking up deficits over a trillion dollars a year” and suggested he was to blame for the millions of people who have not been able to find jobs.
Romney left it to McCain, who endorsed him Wednesday in New Hampshire, to lead the attacks on two of his Republican rivals, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich. McCain faulted both men for pursuing earmarks in Congress, a process that members of Congress have used to allocate money to pet projects in their states.