PICKENS, S.C. (AP) _ Republican presidential candidate George W. Bush demanded Tuesday that the U.S. government repay its ``debt of honor'' to veterans, and tangled with rival John McCain's campaign over who is best-suited to be commander-in-chief.

Bush praised the Arizona's senator's war-hero past, but predicted that his two terms as Texas governor make for a more attractive presidential candidate.

``I can understand'' why some voters are drawn to McCain's biography, Bush said between stops in this early GOP primary state. ``But I think voters are going to say I'd be a better commander-in-chief because I've had chief executive experience. I know how to set goals. I know how to make decisions. I know how to rally people.''

McCain's campaign fired back with a statement alluding to Bush's other executive experience: co-ownership of the Texas Rangers.

``While Senator McCain hasn't fired a baseball manager, we think he has some relevant experience to be the nation's commander-in-chief,'' said spokesman Howard Opinsky. ``We'll let the voters decide.''

Bush is still smarting from the fallout over a reporter's pop foreign policy quiz last week. He was unable to name three of four heads of state, and looked baffled trying to deal with the situation.

The episode raised new questions about whether Bush, leading in polls and fund-raising, is prepared to lead the country _ particularly when it comes to foreign policy.

Sending a subtle message that he is commander-in-chief material, Bush padded his stump speech Tuesday with praise of veterans and a promise to ``rebuild the military power of the United States of America.''

He made light of the gaffe, quoting his wife, Laura, as saying before he left for South Carolina, ``Don't show off and name all the leaders of every country in the world.''

Voters here didn't seem to take note of the flap.

With smoke burning off a dozen Marlboro butts stashed in an ashtray, Democrat Harry Lingenfelter said he hadn't heard of the pop quiz and planned to vote for the Republican Bush.

``I don't think (Democrat) Bill Bradley knows enough and (Vice President) Al Gore has been around President Clinton too much,'' said Lingenfelter, as Bush mingled at an Easley, S.C., diner.

Several customers whispered warms words to Bush about his father, former President George Bush. None mentioned the quiz.

On veterans, Bush accused the Clinton administration of failing to deliver adequate health care to ex-soldiers.

``Soldiers once ordered by their government to stand in the line of fire should not now be ordered to stand in line at the nearest bureaucracy with hat in hand,'' he said, framed by two white columns at the Pickens County courthouse.

He promised to produce a top-to-bottom overhaul of the veteran's health care system, make its easier to file claims and place veterans' advocates in the administration _ ``People sympathetic to their interests, instead of suspicious.''

``These are the ways to help repay our debt of honor to our nation's veterans,'' he said.

Afterward, the governor refused to support or condemn efforts by GOP lawmakers to impose an across-the-board spending cut that would impact veteran's programs.

``I will wait and see what Congress is prepared to do,'' said Bush, who served in the Air National Guard during Vietnam.

A longtime advocate for veterans, McCain has devoted an Internet site to their issues for weeks, and has frequently called the government's treatment of veterans ``a disgrace.'' He has proposed increasing spending by $3 billion a year on veterans' health care.

Republican strategists said McCain stood to benefit from any doubts about Bush's readiness, given his long record in the Senate and goodwill built from his 5 1/2 years in a Vietnam prisoner of war camp.

Bush and McCain are battling for the upper hand in South Carolina, which holds a Feb. 19 primary and has an unusually high concentration of former military personnel.

McCain, the hero son and grandson of Navy admirals, has worked tirelessly to rally fellow veterans. They are the centerpiece of a strategy to slow the front-running Bush in New Hampshire and South Carolina.

Bush has watched his lead over McCain shrink in New Hampshire, and now realizes South Carolina may be a firewall. Bush and McCain are courting New Hampshire veterans later this week.

There are no reliable public polls of GOP voters here, though the Bush campaign plans to conduct its own survey soon. Neither campaign is advertising in the state, which is a traditional gateway to the South for presidential candidates.

With his foreign policy credentials in question, Bush and his surrogates repeatedly made the case Tuesday that his stint as governor would make him a better president.

``Every presidential candidate should have executive office experience,'' said former Gov. Carroll Campbell, a Bush supporter. Campbell was reminded that he backed eventual 1996 nominee Bob Dole who, like McCain, served in the Senate.

``That's right,'' he said, as if Dole's failure supported his point. ``A candidate should have executive office experience.''