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Kerry rolls out campaign for the veterans' vote in Minneapolis visit
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"We're here because we understand that what we fought for is still at risk," Kerry said during a rally at the University of Minnesota. (MPR Photo/Mark Zdechlik)
Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry says the way to curtail the loss of U.S. lives and reduce the amount of money being spent on the war with Iraq is to bring together a broad international coalition to restore peace there. Kerry spoke Friday afternoon at the University of Minnesota, using the stop to criticize the Bush administration for its handling of the war against Iraq and its approach to international diplomacy.

Minneapolis, Minn. — Kerry's stop in Minnesota came on the tail end of his 11-day "National Security and Foreign Policy Tour."

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Image A vet for Kerry

Kerry says he chose Minnesota to highlight what he says is growing support for his presidential campaign from veterans because Minnesota is the home of the late Sen. Paul Wellstone, a national veterans' advocate.

"It is such a great pleasure to be here. I really mean that. The hearts, the warmth of your spirit... to be here in Wellstone country is a good feeling," Kerry said.

On his fourth visit to Minnesota as a presidential candidate, Kerry announced his campaign has put together veterans organizations in all 50 states.

Kerry called for more funding for veterans programs, as about 2,500 veterans, students, retirees and union workers assembled in the U of M's Sport's Pavilion cheered him on.

Kerry accused the administration George Bush of damaging U.S. foreign relations. Indicating the war with Iraq was unnecessary, Kerry said if he's elected president, the U.S. will go to war only if it needs to, not because it wants to.

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Image Rally against Kerry

"The leader of the free world, the United States of America, has lost respect and influence. Alliances are broken and people are questioning both our values and ideals. I intend to restore America's respect and influence. I intend to put us back in the position of leadership," he said.

Kerry also told the crowd the Bush administration is relying too heavily on reserve and National Guard troops to fight the war with Iraq. He says pulling so many soldiers out of their hometowns threatens homeland security.

He criticized the Bush administration's military stop-loss policy, which forces some soldiers to remain on duty even after their term of enlistment is over , saying it amounts to a "back-door draft."

Kerry said he would establish a "military families bill of rights" to ensure the families of troops deployed are properly taken care of.

Kerry also said he would double the size of special forces, which he says are better suited to handle many situation that are now handled by conventional troops.

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Image A vet against Kerry

And Kerry pledged to rebuild troubled relationships with other countries and work to convince more nations to help bring peace to Iraq. Kerry says a broader coalition would reduce U.S. casualties as well as financial costs.

"The way to get this war out of the pockets of the American taxpayer is to do what we should have done in the first place, which is reach out to the rest of the world, bring them to the table, share global responsibility by sharing global authority not just keeping it for Halliburton, for this administration."

Halliburton is the energy company headed by Dick Cheney before he became vice president. It's been the subject of investigations for allegedly overcharging the U.S. government for fuel in Iraq.

John Hurley, Kerry's national veterans director, says veterans will be motivated to vote for Kerry because of his Vietnam war experience and their anger at diminished services from the Veterans Administration and Bush's handling of Iraq.

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Image A student for Kerry

"I think veterans are really uneasy, particularly Vietnam vets have a haunting sense of deja vu," Hurley, who was an Army lieutenant in Vietnam, said in an interview aboard Kerry's campaign plane. "John Kerry is going to get the veteran vote. Even if it has been Republican in the past, we are going to carry it."

An estimated 26.4 million people, or better than one in seven voting-age Americans, have served in the U.S. military, according to 2000 Census figures analyzed by the Department of Veterans Affairs. Bush got more than half, 54 percent, of the veterans' vote in a CBS News poll released last week while Kerry had the support of four in 10 veterans.

In a two-way matchup in the poll, conducted May 20-23, Kerry was ahead 49 percent to 41 percent.

People streaming out of the Sports Pavilion were upbeat after Kerry's remarks. Wearing medals he earned serving in the infantry in Africa and Italy in WWII, Rudy Melquist said Kerry delivered a good speech. Melquist says he supports Kerry's pledge to work more closely with the other nations of the world. He's angry the Bush administration invaded Iraq without the backing of the United Nations.

"(He's) not a good president because he wants to do everything by himself. 'I will do this. I will do that. We don't need the United Nations.' That's what he said. We want to do this."

Students, too, left pleased with Kerry's remarks, even though the senator said almost nothing about education.

"There were some students who were a little disappointed that he didn't touch more on educational issues, seeing as how it was at the U of M, but the veterans hosted this and I think he did a really good job of addressing the crowd and really talking about some of the issues that even students can relate to," said U of M student Andrew Mercil.

Prior to the Kerry speech the Minnesota chapter of "Veterans for Bush" put on a counter-rally. Fifty to 75 Bush backers marched across campus chanting "four more years."

Army vet Fred Barstow of Woodbury called Bush "a consistent commander-in-chief" and said he's not impressed in any way with John Kerry.

"I couldn't follow into combat a person like John Kerry that to me would be idiotic or suicidal. The guy is a phony as far as I'm concerned," Barstow said.

Retired Lt. Col. Joe Repya said veterans are concerned about Kerry's votes to cut military pay, weapons systems and against funding for operations in Iraq and Afghanistan during his nearly 20-year Senate career.

"I think most vets understand this election is not about Vietnam," said Repya, who served 18 years in the Army Reserves and 10 years on active duty, including tours in Vietnam and Operation Desert Storm. "This election is about who can win the war on terror."

John Kerry wraps up his 11-day national security tour Sunday in Toledo, Ohio.

The Associated Press contributed to this report

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