It was perhaps an odd place to find U.S. Senate candidate and conservative Republican Rob Maness campaigning for votes — front row of the LSU Union Theater where an openly gay British man, dressed in full drag down to the high heels, delivered an hourlong speech about the importance of "fat shaming." 

The speaker was Milo Yiannopoulos, an "alt-right" conservative and Breitbart News editor who has made headlines across the country for his offensive remarks about liberals and minorities as part of a statement about conservatism and the value of free speech. 

The event was particularly popular with young Donald Trump supporters, which in large part explains why Maness was there. The retired Air Force colonel, with a 33-year career in the military, considers Trump supporters an integral part of his voter base in the state. Many Republicans in the crowded 24-candidate race have offered only tepid support of the presidential nominee, but Maness has given a full-throated endorsement.

Although other Republican Senate candidates and officeholders ducked media calls about the tape of Trump describing how he aggressively kissed and grabbed women, Maness was the first Louisiana GOP politician to say he continued to support his party's presidential nominee. 

"You're here to see Milo? Then you're my kind of voter," Maness said as he shook hands of students waiting in line for tickets to the event, many wearing "Make America Great Again" hats. "I like your shirt, man," he said to someone whose shirt read "Hillary for Prison."

Before the show, Maness was interviewed by LSU student reporters, who asked why he would come to an event that so many found offensive.

"You have to try to get past the haze of what your professors might have told you," said Maness, who has two master's degrees, one from Harvard University. "What he says is what America is about."

Concerns about what is politically correct, Maness said, are ruining the country by eroding the U.S. Constitution.

"Unfortunately, we live in a society that has this thing called 'politically correctness,' ” he said, "which, in my view, is an oppression and tyranny against free speech."

He said people like President Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton refuse to blame Islamic jihadists for acts of domestic terrorism, just to be "politically correct" and not offend anyone. A longtime military intelligence official, Maness said that kind of inaction chips away at the First Amendment and weakens national security.

Military career 

Maness is the son of a noncommissioned officer who as a child bounced around the country from base to base. Maness joined the family business, enlisting in the U.S. Air Force when he was 17. For nine generations, dating to the Revolutionary War, his family has been involved in the military, he said. 

In his own career, Maness specialized in bomb disposal and still wears the unit's pin on his lapel. Maness rose through the ranks to become a bomber squadron commander in operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, and then to command the 377th Air Base Wing at Kirtland Air Force Base in New Mexico. Maness also worked in the Pentagon as a high-ranking nuclear operations officer and adviser to the president and the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

And in 2001 when terrorists hijacked airliners on Sept. 11, flying one passenger plane into the walls of the Pentagon, he was there. The attack killed 125 people in the Pentagon; more than 2,800 other lives were lost on the planes and at the World Trade Center in New York City.

As fire and smoke filled the corridors, hundreds of people were evacuated from the Pentagon. But Maness stayed back with other volunteers to search for survivors and salvage evidence and classified materials.

He remembers re-entering the building, covering his face with his dampened shirt to keep from breathing the smoke. He and the others walked in a line with hands on one another's shoulders to guide them as they searched for victims.

"I saw the cockpit," he said. "I saw the people still strapped in their seats that were not alive."

The attack became both a turning point in the way the country — and Maness — would view issues of national security.

"That was a really crystallizing moment for me — that the Islamic jihadis are really at war with us, and we really need to take the right steps and make sure our resources are focused, or else Western civilization could really be in jeopardy," he said. "From that point on, my family and I saw things through that lens."

Maness said too many Americans have been killed in mass shootings on U.S. soil by people with Islamic ties, specifically citing the Orlando, Florida, nightclub massacre, where 49 people were slain by Omar Mateen, a Muslim man born in New York. Officials said Mateen pledged his allegiance to the militant Islamic State group.

"The federal government's No. 1 job is to defend this nation," he said.

Maness said that's why border security is so important to him — and is the reason he strongly believes in Trump and his plan to build a wall on the Mexican border. Critics have called the wall unrealistic and cost prohibitive, and the president of Mexico has rejected Trump's insistence that the country must pay for it. 

"He'll get the wall built, and he'll probably even get Mexico to pay for it," Maness said. "And I'll help him do that. I also have the intelligence background to advise him on things like other technology and innovations that can be done to make the security of that wall most effective.”

Maness said he would push for Congress to officially declare war on the Islamic State. He also said the defense budget needs to be reprioritized.

"I'm the only person in this race who understands how weak our military forces really are," he said. 

Conservative platform

This is Maness's second time running for the U.S. Senate. In 2014, he came in third against then-U.S. Rep. Bill Cassidy, a fellow Republican, and the Democratic incumbent, Mary Landrieu.

It was his first bid for public office. But staking out political ground to the right of Cassidy and with the support of tea parties and conservative favorites such as Sarah Palin, Maness got 14 percent of the 1.47 million votes cast. 

From his own polling and communications with his base — the 200,000 or so voters who backed him in 2014 — Maness said he believes about 84 percent of his voters will support him again. That's why he rejects the recent polls that have put him at 4 percent, roughly in sixth place behind two Democrats and three other Republicans. His low polling already has excluded him from major televised debates.

Maness, who lives in Madisonville, also is a member of the St. Tammany Parish Republican Party Executive Committee, which was the first parish party in the state to officially come out against Common Core, another issue he's passionate about. He claims to be the most conservative Republican in the race, noting that state Treasurer John N. Kennedy, considered the front-runner by many, was a registered Democrat until 2007.

Maness said he'd fight Common Core and the Affordable Care Act, dubbed by conservatives as "Obamacare." Maness said voters can count on him to uphold conservative values in Congress. He vowed that he'd never support a single budget that includes funding for Planned Parenthood, which provides abortions and women's health services.

Maness carries around with him a pocket-size copy of the U.S. Constitution as a reminder of what he's fighting for. But he also feels motivated by his five kids and his four grandkids. 

"I have a 12-year-old son," he said. "I have to be able to look them in the eyes one day and say I went beyond my military service and used my experience and skills to further try to protect this Constitution of the United States so they get to inherit a country that is following these laws."

Early voting for the Nov. 8 primary begins Tuesday, Oct. 25, and continues through Tuesday, Nov. 1. Should no candidate win a majority in the Nov. 8 election, the top two vote-getters, regardless of party, will face off in a Dec. 10 runoff. 

Follow Rebekah Allen on Twitter, @rebekahallen.