It's just after dawn in this genteel seaport town, and the bells on the front door of the Moose Mountain Cafe are already jangling with activity. The first people to amble in - and be hit with the smell of freshly baked muffins - are six military veterans.
They've come to talk politics - and may be worth listening to, because veterans are a key swing vote in South Carolina's Feb. 19 Republican presidential primary.
The state's 373,000 veterans are being courted by straight-shooter and fellow vet Sen. John McCain - and by Texas Gov. George W. Bush, who tells this typically far-right constituency he's the "true conservative."
As the men settle in, it's clear both candidates have made inroads with this all-Republican group. Two support Bush. One backs McCain. Three are undecided.
Yet as the discussion evolves, the undecideds lean toward McCain. Their yearning for honesty trumps the fact that he's more liberal. In fact, during the two-hour conversation the group delves deep into the qualities of stellar leadership - and does not dwell much on specific policies.
John Grisillo, a trim 1987 West Point graduate, puts it this way: "On the issues I'm aligned with George Bush. But there's a thing that comes from my gut. It says, 'This is the time for character - for an un-Clinton candidate.' "
Mr. Grisillo says McCain fits that bill partly because of the 5-1/2 years he spent in Vietnamese prisoner-of-war camps. "He's been through a crucible that nobody else has," he says. And while that alone doesn't make McCain fit for the presidency, "it's enough of a difference in character building - and in being comfortable being lonely."
Such independence is key, Grisillo says. "If you're going to be a leader, you've got to be comfortable being alone - and not stick your finger in the air and see which way the wind's blowing."
But lest anyone think McCain is getting a free ride with this group, Bush supporter Arthur Blair pipes up. This West Point graduate served in Korea and later taught at South Carolina's Citadel military academy, where he worked for another former POW, Adm. James Stockdale, who was Ross Perot's 1992 running mate. "I'd do anything for that man," Mr. Blair says, adding with characteristic Southern flair: "He could park his car in my bellybutton." But "the fact that he was a prisoner of war wouldn't make him a better presidential candidate."
There's plenty of skepticism of McCain here, too. In fact, there's a distinct generation gap, with the two older vets supporting Bush and the four younger ones backing McCain.
Blair wonders why the Arizona senator has been in Congress so long but hasn't talked about his accomplishments. "He moans about how bad the military is, but why hasn't he done anything about it? He's been there for 17 years."
Blair also suspects McCain has been riding high on the campaign-finance-reform mantra - all the while knowing such reforms wouldn't pass. "He's a terrible hypocrite," he says.
Norm Stanfield, a cavalry officer who had stints in Germany, Pakistan, and Vietnam, worries about McCain's ability to bring people together: "Is he going to be battling Congress or is he going to figure out ways to get things done?"
But the group's young Turks are captivated by McCain's rebellious idealism.
All-out McCain supporter and former Navy officer Tim Haraden wants more than a smooth political facilitator. He wants someone with "the courage of his convictions."
Courage is also key for Pat Mitchell, an easygoing bear of a man who was a peacekeeper in Bosnia. He looks at leaders as either taxicab drivers or bus drivers, an idea that makes several in the group cock their heads in slightly skeptical interest.
"With a taxi driver," Mr. Mitchell says, "people get in and say, 'Here's where I want to go.' But a bus driver says, 'This is where I'm going - you let me know when you want to get off.' "
To him, McCain is the bus driver - who will take the country in a unified direction. Bush, meanwhile, seems a bit too eager to please people - to take each individual where they want to go - a quality he also sees in President Clinton.
There's unanimity that McCain is the more-shrewd politician. His all-the-time access to the press, his straight-shooting style in the post-Clinton era, and his appealing to independent and Democratic voters all augur well for him as a potential president.
"He also sold himself as an outsider after 17 years in Congress - now that's slick," says Bush-backer Blair, adding that "when push comes to shove, he's the much better politician."
"Ah, the left-handed compliment," retorts Grisillo with a smile.
The group agrees that Bush has made several mistakes, relying too much on endorsements and letting his parents campaign for him. All here admire the senior Bushes, but, "If little Georgie has his parents campaigning for him, it just reinforces that he's not his own man."
As for Bush's other troubles, McCain convert Grisillo quips, "I guess having too much money isn't always a blessing," adding with a wry laugh, "I say that about myself all the time."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society