A day after a somber visit with families and victims of the movie theater shooting in Colorado, President Barack Obama resumed campaigning for re-election, courting support among the nation’s oldest and biggest combat veterans’ organization.
Obama addressed the Veterans of Foreign Wars convention yesterday in Reno, Nevada, as opinion polls show high approval ratings on national security and foreign policy. He said his record -- ending the war in Iraq, setting a timetable for winding down the war in Afghanistan, killing Osama bin Laden and creating economic benefits for soldiers returning home -- demonstrates his support for current and former service members.
“As we look ahead to the challenges we face as a nation and the leadership that’s required, you don’t just have my words, you have my deeds,” Obama said. “You have the promises I’ve made and the promises that I’ve kept.”
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney speaks to the same group today. The former Massachusetts governor will be outlining his foreign policy views just before leaving for a six-day trip to England, Poland and Israel. The VFW podium gives Romney a chance to contrast his plans with those of Obama, who he says has weakened the U.S. position in the world.
With the election less than four months away, the two candidates are resuming their campaigns in an election that their polls say will be decided by a narrow margin. That means both campaigns are competing for every constituency.
Veterans, who exit polls showed accounted for about 15 percent of the electorate in the 2008 presidential election, remain a tough sell for the Democratic president.
“Even though the VFW isn’t the sweet spot for the electorate for Barack Obama, it makes sense for him to show his flag, to reach out, to talk to them,” said Stu Rothenberg, editor of the nonpartisan Rothenberg Political Report in Washington. “He knows this isn’t his natural constituency but when you’re president, you do this.”
“I think he’ll still lose them,” Rothenberg said.
Obama interrupted his schedule July 22 to meet families of victims in the shooting at an Aurora, Colorado, movie theater. Obama and Romney suspended their campaigns in the immediate aftermath of the July 20 incident, which left 12 people dead and 58 injured. They also suspended broadcasting political ads in Colorado.
While Obama never mentioned his political opponent directly, he said some critics opposed his decision to set a timeline for a withdrawal of U.S. forces in Afghanistan.
“When you’re commander in chief you owe your military” a plan for ending a conflict, Obama said.
Later, the president attended three fundraisers in California that collected at least $3.4 million. At a private dinner in Piedmont, California, outside Oakland, Obama said that while the U.S. economy is recovering, “the challenges we’ve seen in Europe are blowing back onto our shores.”
The dinner was hosted by progressive activist- philanthropist Quinn Delaney and her husband, real estate developer and Obama bundler Wayne Jordan. Sixty guests paid $35,800 each to attend, the Obama campaign said in an e-mail.
Obama is scheduled to travel today to Portland, Oregon, and Seattle for more campaign events and fundraisers. Tomorrow, he’ll be in New Orleans for campaign events and fundraisers, concluding with a speech to the National Urban League before returning to Washington.
In a close election, even a small advantage with one constituency can be critical. The veterans’ vote may be influential in such toss-up states as Virginia, Florida and North Carolina.
In 2008, Republican John McCain, a decorated former prisoner of war in Vietnam, captured 54 percent of the veterans’ vote compared with 44 percent for Obama. Thirty-five percent of veterans voting in 2008 identified themselves as Democrats, 34 percent as Republicans and the balance were independents, exit polls conducted for national television networks showed.
Rothenberg said any credible Republican nominee is going to have an advantage among veterans, who he said tend to be older, white and patriotic, and “look and sound more Republican than the rest of the country.”
Still, “Mitt Romney is not John McCain, when it comes to personal heroism, national military service,” Rothenberg said.
Neither Obama nor Romney served in the military.
Romney has spent little time campaigning on military or defense issues, Rothenberg said, because “they’ve decided the election is about jobs, jobs, jobs and the economy.” National security “is a tiny part of that campaign.”
Support for Romney isn’t a foregone conclusion. Veterans narrowly favored Democrat Bill Clinton, who was criticized for avoiding military service during Vietnam, over World War II veteran George H.W. Bush in 1992.
“We are a diverse organization” by geography, age, and nationality, Richard L. DeNoyer, 69, national commander of the VFW and a retired Marine and Vietnam combat veteran from Middleton, Massachusetts, said in a telephone interview July 20.
The VFW doesn’t endorse presidential candidates. “We are a relatively conservative organization when it relates to national security and the military and protecting the nation.”
Members attending the 113th annual convention are concerned about the war in Afghanistan, turmoil in the Middle East and economic belt tightening at home and the effect on veteran and military health-care programs, he said.
Unemployment among veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan was 9.5 percent in June, not seasonally adjusted, compared with 13.3 percent in the same month a year earlier, according to the Labor Department. That’s worse than the 8.2 percent jobless rate for the nation as a whole.
“I haven’t taken a survey, but hearing people talk, I think they’re very, very concerned about the economy, and in this election, the economy may be more important,” DeNoyer said.
Veterans as a group have some specific concerns. The Veterans Department is overwhelmed by a decade of fighting overseas, Bloomberg News reported May 23. Record numbers of ex- soldiers are turning to the government for disability pay, for example, adding to a backlog of claims and delays that have dogged the agency for years.
Disability cases filed with the department climbed 48 percent over the past four years to 1.3 million in 2011. About 905,000 claims are pending at the department, and about two- thirds of them are taking longer than the agency’s 125-day target for addressing them, the department said in May.
A federal court ruling in May 2011 said it takes an average of more than four years for veterans to receive a final decision. Many have died waiting.
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