McCain 2008 (copy)

U.S. Sen., John McCain, R-Ariz., speaks as then-South Carolina Attorney General Henry McMaster, left, Cindy McCain, center, and U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., listen during a 2007 presidential campaign rally at Adluh Flour-Allen Brothers Milling Co. in Columbia. (AP Photo/Brett Flashnick)

U.S. Sen. John McCain was recalled as a hero, a symbol of sacrifice and a friend by South Carolina political leaders after passing away Saturday at age 81.

"America and Freedom have lost one of (their) greatest champions ... And I’ve lost one of my dearest friends and mentor," tweeted U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-Seneca, who was McCain's closest ally in the Senate. "I will need some time to absorb this, but I want (his wife) Cindy — and the entire McCain family — to know they are in my prayers."

U.S. Sen. Tim Scott, R-North Charleston, called McCain an "American hero."

"It was truly an honor to work under his chairmanship at Senate Armed Services Committee, and to get to know him over my five years in the Senate," Scott tweeted.

Gov. Henry McMaster ordered flags to fly at half-staff in South Carolina on the day of McCain's funeral, his chief of staff Trey Walker tweeted. They both will attend McCain's funeral service. 

"I will never forget John McCain. He was among the greatest of men, and he was my friend," McMaster tweeted. "I hope his family can find comfort in knowing that he inspired the lives of generations of Americans, young and old."

Since McCain's family announced Friday the senator would stop treatment for brain cancer, Walker, who worked on McCain's 2000 and 2008 presidential runs, posted on Twitter some memories from the campaigns.

Walker recalled how before McCain appeared at a mayor's conference in 1999, he smoothed the senator's hair with his hands.

"Some jerk in back of room made snarky comment," Walker tweeted. "Reporter standing near us very loudly said: “His shoulders were broken in Vietnam" when McCain was held as a prisoner of war.

U.S. Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-Spartanburg, tweeted Saturday that, "Watching (McCain) put his jacket on, made challenging by the scars of torture and beating, spoke more than a thousand speeches on service and sacrifice."

Gowdy added that McCain "always had a word of accountability and encouragement."

That was the type of respect McCain earned over nearly two decades from South Carolina politicians, though he was not treated so kindly at first.

McCain lost the 2000 South Carolina Republican presidential primary in a race that was so nasty that it is cemented into the narrative about the no-holds-barred nature of Palmetto State politics. 

Rumors were spread that McCain’s adopted Bangladeshi daughter was the product of an interracial affair, McCain’s wife was a drug addict and McCain himself was mentally unstable. He lost the primary and the nomination to George W. Bush.

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McCain took the loss with some sense of humor. Walker posted a signed photo from a Time magazine article after the primary: "Trey, You are why we lost!! All the best, John McCain."  

The race also led to a moment of contriteness. McCain had flip-flopped on the Confederate flag, calling it “a symbol of heritage” after saying it was “a symbol of racism and slavery.” McCain returned to South Carolina to apologize.

In 2008, McCain came back to the early primary state for what one supporter called a more "upbeat" presidential campaign, though a more frugal one after hitting a cash crunch. He cut staff and drove around South Carolina in borrowed cars because he could not afford rentals.

But the support he built in South Carolina in the 2000 campaign along with his backing of post-9/11 combat action in the military loving state helped him win the primary on the the way to the GOP nomination.

After his loss to Democrat Barack Obama, McCain became best known in South Carolina for his close ties to Graham. They would often speak together on issues.

McCain even campaigned with Graham in New Hampshire and even appeared in a TV ad during the South Carolina senator's short-lived run for president in the 2016 race. 

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Columbia Bureau Chief

Shain runs The Post and Courier's team based in South Carolina's capital city. He was editor of Free Times and has been a reporter and editor for newspapers in Charlotte, Columbia and Myrtle Beach.