COLUMBIA - Maj. Gen. Robert Livingston has commanded the 9,000 members of South Carolina's Army and Air National Guard for nearly four years. In 2007, he led the state's largest combat force since World War II on a yearlong deployment to Afghanistan.
Yet the two-star Army National Guard general has to swap his uniform for a civilian's coat and tie to campaign for a second term as the state's adjutant general.
South Carolina is the only state in the nation where voters choose their top military officer in a general election.
In past years, the race in this military-friendly state has amounted to a mundane exercise. In 2010, Livingston made his first run for the post with no opponent and garnered 99 percent of about 900,000 votes cast.
"It is kind of awkward to switch from being a soldier that doesn't attract - and doesn't want - public attention, because my job is to serve beside and behind our commander in chief," Livingston told the AP shortly after announcing his re-election bid last month. "But when I become a politician, I have to seek attention."
This time, the race for the Republican nomination in the June 10 primary is spicier because it is contested.
At his campaign stops, Livingston points to his 35 years in uniform, his experience leading a brigade in combat, and work under Army Gen. David Petraeus at the U.S. Central Command.
His opponent, 45-year-old James Breazeale of Florence, is an Army Reserve lieutenant colonel and commercial airline pilot who touts his three deployments to Iraq and Kuwait as well as two years with the South Carolina Guard.
However, Peter O'Boyle, spokesperson for the South Carolina Department of Probation, Parole and Pardon Services, said Breazeale is on probation in Florence County until September of 2015 for a conviction of "entering premises after warning" while living in Florida in 2013.
Breazeale explains the case stems from the stress during a former military marriage. He said he entered probation "voluntarily, to show that there was no issue here" with his ex-spouse. "Some divorces are not nice," he said in an interview.
While running for re-election means this is Livingston's second run for office, Breazeale ran for congressional office in North Carolina in 2008 and 2010, and lost both races.
In recent days, Breazeale has said Livingston is "covering up" a federal investigation of Army National Guard recruiters.
At a U.S. Senate panel hearing in February, it was disclosed that Army criminal investigators have been looking at more than 1,200 people in uniform and civilian ranks nationwide who took bonuses for referring recruits into the military, resulting in fraud that may have cost the nation at least $29 million. The program ran from 2005 to 2012 to boost enlistment at the height of the Iraq and Afghan wars.
Livingston responded to Breazeale by saying he had no authority over the investigation because it is being conducted on a federal, not state level. The general said 11 members of the South Carolina National Guard had cases that merited serious investigation. One person was cleared, one was found to have violated regulations but committed no criminal activity and nine investigations are still pending, he said.
"I will ensure punitive actions are taken for any wrongdoing. At this point, we have no indication of criminal allegations and therefore there is nothing to report. We continue to be transparent on this issue as we are in all matters," the general said.
In South Carolina, the Adjutant General is in charge of the state's Army and Air National Guard as well as its Emergency Management Division that handles storm and disaster response. In other states, governors fill the post by appointment, while in Vermont, lawmakers elect the adjutant general.
The reason behind South Carolina's odd military election is a very old one, says Winthrop University political science professor Scott Huffmon.
South Carolina's constitution dates from 1895, when the white establishment reclaimed power after Reconstruction and set up a weak-governor system, with nine of the state's top officials each elected separately, he said.
"That ensured that even if a black were able to become governor, no one person would control the state government and its top offices," Huffmon said.
Both men are keen on getting voters interested in their contest.
"It's still a dangerous world out there. It's important South Carolina have someone who is well experienced in combat as a senior leader, and as a general officer, and have that experience working for them in Washington," Livingston said at one campaign stop.
For his part, Breazeale says not being a general gives him an advantage dealing with other senior officers because of the people who elected him. "An elected adjutant general can speak his or her mind. I would get respect because of the position," he said.
Judith Ausuebel in New York, Michael Biesecker in Raleigh and Michael Schneider in Orlando contributed to this story. Follow Susanne Schafer on Twitter at http://twitter.com/susannemarieap