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John Kerry trying to tap support from vets
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John Kerry listens to veterans and their families during a rally in Asbhwaubenon, Wisc. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)
In a visit to Minnesota Friday, Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry will announce his campaign has put together "veterans for Kerry" organizations in all 50 states. Kerry claims vets, who traditionally vote Republican, are increasingly backing him over President Bush. Both campaigns are aggressively courting veterans, who make up about 13 percent of eligible voters.

St. Paul, Minn. — In any election as close as this year's race for president is expected to be, winning over any major block of voters could be critical to victory. Research has shown veterans typically vote Republican, and do so by a wide margin.

"They're maybe even two-to-one Republican," says Duke University political science professor Peter Feaver, who has written extensively on veterans' views about politics. "When we asked them the last time in a late April survey to do a Bush-Kerry horse race, we had about 57 percent backing Bush and 36 percent backing Kerry. So about a 20-point spread. If you just looked at non-veterans, Bush and Kerry were dead even."

But going into this November's presidential election Democrats see newfound opportunity to make inroads with veterans. John Kerry says he expects an increasing number of veterans who are angry with President Bush, will vote for him instead.

"I think vets understand that this administration has broken faith with them," Sen. Kerry, D-Mass., said in an interview with Minnesota Public Radio (Listen).

Kerry lambasted the Bush administration accusing the Republican president of underfunding veterans programs as he cuts taxes. Analysis by the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg Public Policy Center concludes that while the Bush administration has tried to slow the growth in program spending for vets, in the first three years of Bush's presidency Veteran Administration spending increased 27 percent.

Kerry also charged President Bush has failed to adequately support soldiers in the war against terrorism. "Veterans particularly understand that you don't send troops into war without the parts, without the equipment, without the body armor, without the Humvees that are protected," Kerry said, "and you have a whole lot of guardsmen and reserves who have been stretched too thin. So I think all in all, a lot of vets understand that this president has not kept faith with the troops."

Bush-Cheney 2004 veterans coalition director, David Castillo, says Kerry's charge that U.S. troops are ill-equipped is "ridiculous," considering Kerry voted against the $87 billion supplemental defense bill in the Senate last fall.

"The $87 billion that John Kerry voted against provided funding for body armor, provided health care benefits for active duty reservists and their families and provided a whole host of other support programs for our veterans who are currently serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. His rhetoric does not match his record," Castillo says.

The Kerry campaign says the senator's vote against the supplemental defense appropriation was a protest, that Kerry knew the bill would pass and voted "no" because he believed the Bush administration had no plan to bring peace to Iraq. The campaign also says Kerry was protesting Republican tax cuts with his "no" vote.

As for Kerry's claim he's taking veterans' support from President Bush, Castillo says he sees no evidence of that.

"He's trying to create this perception that there's this overwhelming support among the veterans community for him and we're not seeing that at all," he says.

But a new poll indicates support for President Bush among veterans may be slipping, just as support for the president among the general population has softened in recent weeks.

CBS News surveyed voters at the end of May and found that among veterans, Bush leads Kerry by 14 points; hardly the two-to-one margin Duke political science professor Peter Feaver says GOP candidates typically enjoy. A majority of veterans polled by CBS told the network they think the war with Iraq is going badly. A majority also said the war has not been worth the loss of life and other costs.

Kathy Frankovic, CBS News' director of surveys, says "one of the things we've seen in the last month or so is some slippage in the president's approval rating overall, slippage in the president's support vis a vis John Kerry, so we would expect veterans to move along with that."

Frankovic says although veterans are clearly concerned about the war in Iraq, they're generally more upbeat about the situation than the general public. According to the CBS poll, nearly two-thirds of veterans approve of the Bush administration's handling of the war on terrorism, compared to 51 percent of the general population.

But Kerry officials are predicting they'll end up with a majority of veteran votes in November.

Duke's professor Feaver says he doubts that. But Feaver predicts that vets will turn out in unusually large numbers for this fall's presidential election.

"What's striking about the 2004 election, of course, is the extent to which both parties are going to appeal to vets," Feaver says. "The Kerry campaign is essentially running Lt. Kerry for president and that's likely to boost turnout by veterans just as President Bush is running as a war president, commander-in-chief and that like is also to appeal to vets and boost turnout."

Feaver says while Kerry is in better position to attract veterans' support than previous Democratic presidential candidates, Kerry has to walk a fine line so that he doesn't agitate anti-war Democrats as he works to appeal to vets.

The Kerry campaign says it's expecting hundreds of veterans along with other supporters at its U of M rally. Veterans who back President Bush are planning a counter rally before the Kerry event.

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