PENSACOLA, Florida (CNN) -- For John McCain, northwest Florida is full of memories.
Sen. John McCain talks with supporters during a campaign stop this week in Miami, Florida.
"How proud I am to have gone through pilot training here," the former naval aviator tells a crowd in Pensacola, near a naval air station where he trained decades ago after graduating from the U.S. Naval Academy.
The senator from Arizona laughs as he recalls the "various cultural establishments" he visited as a young man and adds: "My entire paycheck every month was dedicated to helping the economy of Pensacola."
With the memories come what a pilot-turned-politician might call targets of opportunity.
"From here to Key West, Florida is one of the most patriotic states in America and that is why I am very proud to be here," McCain says as he courts a constituency critical to his chances in Florida's GOP presidential primary Tuesday. Watch McCain court Florida's veterans »
Consider the numbers: Florida is home to an estimated 1.7 million veterans, second only to California. And veterans are a key element in McCain's political strategy.
In his 2000 drubbing in South Carolina, McCain split the veterans' vote with then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush. But last weekend, 25 percent of those who voted in the South Carolina GOP primary identified themselves as veterans, and among those voters, exit polls showed McCain had a double-digit edge over the man he narrowly beat: former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee. In the end, McCain won the state by a few percentage points, 33 percent to Huckabee's 30 percent.
The win gave McCain some momentum, but he still faces significant challenges in his effort to broaden his appeal within his party.
Regardless of his audience, McCain knows that the economy is the dominant issue at the moment and that one of his challenges is overcoming skepticism among fiscal conservatives who question his commitment to lower taxes.
"We've got to make the tax cuts permanent" is a staple in the senator's stump speech.
Social conservatives, also a critical bloc in the Republican Party, look skeptically at McCain as well. Campaigning in the conservative Florida Panhandle on Tuesday, the 35 anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court ruling legalizing abortion rights, McCain cited Chief Justice John Roberts as a model jurist. "I'm proud of my support for those judges to the bench that strictly interpret the Constitution of the United States and do not legislate from the bench," he says.
But McCain's overriding theme is his national security experience, and his pitch is aimed at swaying fellow veterans in this state rich in military installations and tradition.
"This is a transcendent evil we are facing," McCain told a large audience Tuesday in Fort Walton Beach, "and I want to tell you right now: We will never surrender. They will. I know how to lead. I know how to defeat them."
He promises if elected to change veterans' health care to give them an identification card they could take to virtually any doctor or health-care facility for routine care and treatment.
"That's what I'm going to do for out veterans, and they deserve it," McCain says, often reminding his audiences that the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are straining the veterans' health-care system.
The son of an admiral, McCain is the only leading candidate in either party to have children who have served in the military. In the senator's case, one son is in Iraq, the other at the Naval Academy. They get a mention in virtually every introduction of the candidate by wife Cindy McCain.
"I want my sons back like everybody else," she says in Fort Walton Beach. "But I want them back having done their duty and with honor and in dignity and most of all in victory."
The senator rarely mentions his sons. But at age 71, back in Florida decades after being stationed here, he uses his resume as part of his outreach.
"My friends, as president I would like to serve our nation a little longer." E-mail to a friend
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