The only war hero in the presidential field, Arizona Senator John McCain boarded his Straight Talk Express campaign bus with several veterans who were Vietnam War prisoners with him in the infamous "Hanoi Hilton."
"My great privilege was to serve in the company of heroes, and they are here today," McCain said at a veterans' hall during his first stop of the day.
Many fellow presidential candidates had Veterans Day events scheduled, including GOP front-runner George W. Bush and Democratic Vice President Al Gore.
In Iowa, Gore was using his Veterans Day speech to argue that the United States must reassert its role as an international leader and increase defense spending. His rival, Bill Bradley, has said the Pentagon budget can be retained at current levels. Other than McCain, Gore is the only candidate to have served in Vietnam.
|When Bill Coached Al|
In happier days, Bill Bradley prepped Al Gore for some of his major campaign debates.
"Diplomacy together with military might is how we fight the spread of nuclear weapons in the world," the vice president said in a draft of his address.
McCain trails Bush in national polls of Republican voters, but a new survey in New Hampshire suggests that he is in a dead heat in this first-in-the-nation primary state. The New Hampshire Poll of GOP voters showed that 38 percent favored Bush and 35 percent McCain - a statistical tie.
Veterans are the cornerstone of McCain's political coalition in New Hampshire and South Carolina, two states with strong military ties. McCain said there are 49 million veterans in America, and he must win a majority of their votes "or otherwise I can't succeed" he acknowledged.
Though President Clinton earned a majority of the veterans' vote in 1992 and 1996, McCain said Clinton's Republican opponents did not do enough to convince veerans that they would fix their health care problems.
Bush, who served in the Air National Guard during the Vietnam War, delivered a series of addresses aimed at veterans this week. In South Carolina on Tuesday, the Texas governor promised an overhaul of the veterans' health care system but offered no specific plans. McCain has promised to add $3 billion to veterans' health care program each year until the funding is adequate.
Under pressure, McCain acknowledged Thursday that he made a mistake in allowing his campaign to film a political ad at Arlington National Cemetery without seeking permission of military authorities. The ad will be edited to delete the cemetery footage, McCain said.
The Arizona senator said it was not disrespectful to film the visit.
"I'm not embarrassed to be seen at a cemetery where my father, grandfather and a couple of uncles are buried, but we didn't get permission and we violated the regulations," McCain, the son and grandson of Navy admirals, told reporters.
In his remarks at a veterans hall, McCain vowed to root out government waste - including unnecessary Pentagon spending - to pour more money into veterans' programs.
"My great embarrassment as an American is that we're not providing those World War II veterans with health care benefits that we promised them," McCain said. "Thirty thousand [veterans] are dying every month, many of them without the geriatric care we promised them. That is a disgrace. I promise to fix that as president of the United States. You have my word on it."