By Colleen Jenkins
SUMTER, South Carolina (Reuters) - South Carolina's current and former military personnel form an influential voting bloc but they are split over which Republican to back in the state's presidential primary on Saturday.
Thousands of military retirees and active duty personnel helped Vietnam War hero John McCain win the state's primary in 2008. But, much like the split evangelical vote in South Carolina, the military vote does not appear to have settled en masse on a candidate this time around.
"I don't see anybody that's a clear veteran candidate right now," said Republican strategist Wesley Donehue, who advised Michele Bachmann's campaign in South Carolina before she quit the race.
A quarter of voters in the state's 2008 Republican primary said they had served in the military, exit polls showed. McCain, the eventual nominee, won 36 percent of those votes.
South Carolina's nearly 407,000 veterans comprise close to 9 percent of its overall population. Thousands more active-duty and civilian personnel are employed at the state's eight military bases, with approximately 21,000 military members reporting South Carolina as their state of residence for tax purposes.
Rick Santorum touts his eight years on the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee and Newt Gingrich often talks of a boyhood growing up in a military family.
But libertarian Ron Paul may struggle getting votes from veterans because of his isolationist foreign policy.
Front-runner Mitt Romney has made an overt push for military votes in the past week. He held one campaign event at an American Legion post and at another shared the stage with several dozen veterans and McCain, who has endorsed Romney and is a former Navy pilot and prisoner of war in Vietnam.
A new CNN poll said Romney's lead over Gingrich had shrunk to 10 percentage points, 33 percent to 23 percent, down from a 19-point lead two weeks ago, as the former private equity firm executive faced increasing pressure to reveal more about his vast financial holdings.
Romney has mixed criticism of Obama's plan to cut $487 billion in projected defense spending over the next decade with anecdotes of his own interactions with service members when he was the governor of Massachusetts.
He told a story of watching a soldier's casket arrive home from war. It brought tears to the eyes of a recently retired Air Force member who attended the campaign event in Sumter, South Carolina.
"He's got my vote," Peter St. Onge, 41, said afterward. "You can't fake that."
ADDING MILITARY MUSCLE
Romney says he wants to increase the Navy's shipbuilding rate from nine to 15 ships a year, have at least 11 aircraft carrier task forces and add at least 100,000 additional active duty troops to the military.
In contrast, the Obama administration plans to reduce the overall size of the U.S. Army and Marine Corps as the Pentagon seeks to cut spending after a decade of war and under pressure to reduce federal budget deficits.
"I don't think this is a time that justifies reigning in the capacity of America's military," Romney said to a crowd of hundreds on Hilton Head Island.
Longtime Republican strategist Chip Felkel said that stance should play well with South Carolina's pro-defense, pro-military voters, particularly at a time when the state's unemployment rate is above the national average at 9.9 percent.
"I think that gets a better response here than what Obama wants to do," said Felkel, who is not affiliated with any of the candidates. "When there are not great private-sector opportunities and the economy's not doing well, the military is an option for some people."
Santorum, a conservative U.S. senator from Pennsylvania, has sought to set himself apart with a vow not to reduce military spending.
"I'm the only Republican candidate that said I would not cut the military," Santorum told voters in Florence. "Everybody else says that is on the table."
Of the five major candidates, only Texas Governor Rick Perry and U.S. Representative Paul have served in the military, both in the Air Force. During a debate Monday night in Myrtle Beach, Paul said he receives twice as much money from active-duty military members as all the other candidates combined.
"The military's behind me more than the others," Paul said. "They're sick and tired of those wars."
Donehue said some of his friends who question the purpose of their current deployments are drawn to the Texas congressman's opposition to most U.S. military involvement overseas, but the strategist predicted those views would hurt Paul's chances with older veterans.
Felkel said he thought Paul "did himself in" during Monday's debate when he defended U.S. isolationism.
"You can't come into South Carolina and start talking about military cuts," Felkel said. "The people I've talked to that have come back from Afghanistan and Iraq think he's way out of touch with the realities of the world we live in."
(Editing by Philip Barbara)