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GOP Candidates Battle For A Share Of S.C. Voters With Military Ties


Some other news - South Carolina holds its Republican primary this weekend. And military voters will be a huge factor in that state. Active and retired members of the military make up roughly one quarter of the electorate. Here's NPR national political correspondent Don Gonyea.

DON GONYEA, BYLINE: Just outside the small town of Walterboro in South Carolina's low country yesterday, the stage for a big outdoor rally featured giant American flags and camouflage bunting.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome the next president of the United States, Donald J. Trump.

GONYEA: But in the hours before that speech by Donald Trump began, a long line formed on the wooded property, including many voters with military ties, among them 58-year-old Jim Shinta, a veteran of both the Army and the Air Force.

JIM SHINTA: I never registered to vote before until this election.

GONYEA: He says Trump is the reason. Shinta likes Trump's promise to restore U.S. respect around the world.

What do you want to see Trump do in that regard?

SHINTA: Defeat ISIS number one, close the borders - that's number two.

GONYEA: He doesn't have experience with this.

SHINTA: He doesn't; Ronald Reagan didn't either. That's what I'm hoping for. I don't want to a politician in there. I want somebody that's been out in the world like us.

GONYEA: Shinta says he will absolutely vote for Trump. But he also says he'd like to see some more details on how Trump will make all of this happen. Also waiting in that line is Tauna Longest, who's married to a disabled Vietnam veteran and whose father was career Army. She's still making up her mind.

TAUNA LONGEST: I've got two candidates in mind and Trump's one of them.

GONYEA: Can you tell me who the other one is?

LONGEST: Marco Rubio.

GONYEA: She does admit that sometimes Trump's tone and language bother her, like when he uses a vulgarity to describe how he'll bomb ISIS.

LONGEST: He's very, very impulsive on the campaign trail. He's very impulsive in his debates, and I hope that's not how runs as being president because if that's the case we're in trouble.

GONYEA: But she quickly adds that as commander in chief, Trump can surround himself with the right people. Nearby is 49-year-old Shawn Sauerbrei, who was in the Marines for 23 years. He has no doubts about Trump, saying it's great to have a candidate who's truly committed to helping veterans. He also says people should take some of Trump's over-the-top rhetoric with a grain of salt.

SHAWN SAUERBREI: You know, if he uses the language, it's Donald. He makes people cheer. He makes people think that OK, he's going to do something.

GONYEA: But on some of Trump's very tough talk, Sauerbrei says it's warranted, like when Trump says he'll bring back waterboarding and worse.

SAUERBREI: I think we've got to do what we've got to do for terrorism. If he wants to bring it back - hey, if it works it works. If it doesn't, I'm sure he'll try something else.

GONYEA: In the past few days, Sen. Ted Cruz held a rally on a decommissioned aircraft carrier. That same day in Somerville, Sen. Marco Rubio talked of how a strong military will be his top priority. Work the crowd at any event and Donald Trump always comes up. Undecided voter 73-year-old David Ball is a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel. Trump used to be on his shortlist until the insults and personal attacks just got to be too much, especially in the last debate.

DAVID BALL: After he embarrassed himself tremendously, I felt he wasn't the man I would want to represent me as president.

GONYEA: Meanwhile, at a Jeb Bush event in North Charleston, 48-year-old Derek Robbins says the military has been neglected under President Obama. Robbins' son currently serves in the Air Force.

DEREK ROBBINS: We have one in the service. And so we see how important that is. And to see the military, you know, to be downgraded - it's very important to rebuild that strength.

GONYEA: Robbins says he's wide open as to where his vote will go.

ROBBINS: It's really, you know, a six-way tie. I'm going to support any of them that make it to the nomination.

GONYEA: Military voters still sorting it out in advance of Saturday's South Carolina GOP primary. Don Gonyea, NPR News, Charleston. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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