Both President Bush and Democratic rival John Kerry are competing for a diverse block of voters making up nearly 10% of the U.S. population: military veterans. John Kerry, who served in the Vietnam War, hopes to sign up one million veterans to help his campaign, while President Bush, who did not serve in active-duty military, at this point maintains a slight majority of the veteran vote. VOA's Brent Hurd reports on the influence veterans may have on the presidential election during wartime.
This past Memorial Day, the group "Rolling Thunder" blazed into the mix of celebrations honoring their fellow veterans. Thousands came from across the country clad in leather on flag-adorned Harley Davidson motorcycles. Made up mostly of Vietnam War-era veterans, they and their supporters descend on Washington every year to raise awareness of U.S. soldiers still unaccounted for or missing in previous wars.
What made this year's event unusual was the final destination of a handful of riders, the doorstep of President Bush's office. Here they pledged their support to the president for his re-election. Although their numbers are small, the organization has less than 10,000 of almost 10 million Vietnam-era veterans, their endorsement of the president was a considerable boost since his opponent, Senator John Kerry, is a highly decorated combat veteran from the Vietnam War.
The latest polls indicate their choice reflects a larger trend, a slight majority of America's 27 million veterans back President Bush over John Kerry. Steve Thomas is spokesman for the American Legion, the largest veteran group in the world with nearly three million members. "The American Legion supports the Bush administration in the war on terror and particularly the war in Iraq and Afghanistan," he says.
This should come as no surprise, says Larry Sabato, a political analyst at the University of Virginia. "Right or wrong, whether the cause is just, those troops are there," he says. "They are suffering. They have terrible living conditions. They are being wounded and killed. So the veterans groups care about troops first and foremost."
Mr. Sabato believes that both the Republican and Democratic parties will put veterans on prominent display to emphasize they are strong on national security, a key issue in this year's election. He says this is particularly important for John Kerry.
Mr. Sabato says, "The Democratic Party has the image of being weak on defense and not terribly reliable on national security. So having Kerry surrounded by veterans from his Vietnam days is a kind of symbolic reassurance to at least some people."
John Kerry is recruiting veterans to help his cause. He calls them his "band of brothers," a quote from Shakespeare's Henry V that describes a group of men brought together by combat. Among John Kerry supporters is Wayne Smith, a combat medic who volunteered for the Vietnam War.
"I have known John Kerry for years now, and I must say that I am enormously proud that a Vietnam veteran is running for the highest office in this land," Mr. Smith says. "He is well qualified and has dedicated his life to public service. I think the fact that Kerry has embraced his so-called 'band of brothers and sisters' is enormously important in that it has allowed veterans to feel proud."
Wayne Smith believes that the ongoing global war on terror makes the 2004 election one of the most crucial of his lifetime. "I think the role of veterans during wartime as citizens is not only to support the troops, which is essential, but I think it is also critically important for us to challenge the government when we think its policies are wrong," he says.
Professor Larry Sabato says veterans have always played a role in presidential elections, but this year they may have greater influence because the country is at war. But he cautions that victory on the battlefield does not guarantee the same in elections.
"It is not enough to say I am a war hero and therefore I should be elected," Professor Sabato says. "Bob Dole did not. McCain did not. Kerry may or may not get elected, but it won't be because he got medals for serving in Vietnam."
Analysts say veterans remain hard to pinpoint as a single voting block but tend to be traditionally conservative and respond well to the Republican Party's appeal to family values and patriotism. But Mr. Sabato says they should not all be bundled together as Republicans. They are a diverse group, representing a cross section of America and ultimately vote closely with the general population.