CHARLESTON, S.C. - In television spots that brim with patriotic fervor, the men who would be president swath themselves in red, white, and blue - a salute to the importance of this flag-loving state's huge and influential ranks of military veterans and active-duty personnel.
No polls report on who is winning this contest for this state's military community, but by one barometer active-duty troops favor the one candidate who wants the United States out of foreign wars along with a drastic reduction in defense spending: Representative Ron Paul of Texas. "The military is behind me more than the others,'' he boasted earlier this week in Myrtle Beach, noting he gets twice as much money from service members as his opponents combined.
At Thursday's debate in Charleston, he reminded voters that he was the only veteran on stage.
Rivals have called Paul's platform naive, even dangerous. But Paul, a former Air Force doctor, received more than $95,000 from members of the armed forces from January to September, according to data collected by the Center for Responsive Politics.
"So they're saying that I'm on the right track,'' he said at the debate. "They're sick and tired of those wars. They're sick and tired of the nation-building and the policing activity.''
South Carolina is home to seven military installations, including Fort Jackson, the Army's largest boot camp, and hosts more than 38,000 active-duty personnel. Tens of thousands of veterans live here, and countless civilians depend on an economy powered by the armed services.
South Carolina is "more red blooded than the rest of the country'' and appealing to voters' sense of "patriotism will probably take you farther than other places,'' said DuBose Kapeluck, a professor of political science at The Citadel, a military college in Charleston.
"The military vote is important in any calculus for any candidate who wants to be successful here,'' he said.
While his rivals espouse the traditional GOP gospel of beefing up the country's defenses by boosting, not cutting, military spending, Paul wants to close overseas bases and bring troops home. Long an opponent of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Paul argues that sovereign nations must confront turmoil within their borders on their own.
"Perhaps the people who know best are the people who are enlisted. His message resonates because what he says makes sense to them,'' said Karen Kedrowski, who chairs the political science department at Winthrop University in Rock Hill, S.C.
"He has a military background, and it could inoculate him from those who criticize his policies as an attack on the military itself,'' Kedrowski said.
Paul does have critics, though, especially among older veterans.
George McKnight, 78, a Vietnam war POW and Air Force veteran, spoke derisively of Paul's plan to withdraw troops from abroad when McKnight joined dozens of other veterans at a Mitt Romney event in Hilton Head last week. "He's kind of a wimp, I think.'' Diplomacy? "With some of these guys, it'll be like talking to Hitler with diplomacy.''
At Monday's debate in Myrtle Beach, some in the crowd booed when Paul began describing his "Golden Rule'' on foreign policy.
"My point is if another country does to us what we do others, we're not going to like it very much,'' he said. "I would say that we maybe ought to consider the golden rule in foreign policy.''
But his views have resonated among his young followers and stoked support from many active-duty personnel, who see Paul's approach to military spending as prudent fiscal policy. Paul has said he would cut $1 trillion from the federal budget in his first year of office.
"The Republican side loves veterans and the military - you can see that in their spending,'' said Bradley Hatfield, 25, who served in the Marines for four years until 2009. But he agrees with Paul that some of that military spending is waste. "Ron Paul is going to end the gravy train for a lot of stuff, and it's not going to hurt the military.''
Uncontrolled spending, added Jacob Jameson, 26, a Navy veteran and now an economics major, is putting the country on course to becoming "poor, broke and destitute.''
Last month, Jameson dug deep into his pockets - a sacrifice for any student on a budget, he said - to donate $100 to Paul's campaign.
Jameson scoffs at Paul's rivals who campaign on patriotism. "All of them are trying to project themselves as more patriotic than the other. I see right through it. Just a marketing ploy,'' Jameson said.
To burnish his prodefense credentials, Romney enlisted the star power of a famous veteran, Senator John McCain of Arizona, who recently campaigned with Romney across the Palmetto State.
Paul is relying on his army of youthful volunteers, many of them post-9/11 veterans who are emblematic of the generational divide over the role of the military, to serve as foot soldiers in his battle to change minds.
Older generations of veterans, raised during the Cold War, might have a more traditional view of the US role in global politics, as the sole superpower, according to Kapeluck. "The younger generation is living through globalization, and are perhaps more comfortable with the United States having a diminished role in being the policeman of the world.''
Stephen Spalding, a 24-year-old junior grade officer at the naval base near Charleston, has been campaigning for Paul. He was drawn, he said, by Paul's steadfast stance on stanching the national debt by curbing spending and on his plans to bring troops home.
Others on active duty expressed similar sentiments but declined to have their names published in fear of violating Pentagon rules prohibiting some forms of open display of political partisanship when in uniform.
Spalding said his support for Paul runs deep, but he takes care to campaign in his civilian attire.
"When it comes to his foreign policy, he's not going to budge from it, even if it's unpopular among the Republican establishment,'' said Spalding, who earlier this week went door-to-door to generate support for Paul.
When he came upon the home of Melissa Woodard, 42, he found a convert. "I liked Obama,'' said Woodard, "but we're in serious trouble here. . . . We need to look at our problems here in the US,'' she said, referring to the sluggish economy. "We're in desperate straits.'' Woodard said she had made up her mind to vote for Paul.
Bobby Caina Calvan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.