Sen. John F. Kerry, continuing his drive to burnish his credentials as a potential commander in chief, on Friday unveiled an effort to organize support from 1 million veterans across the country.
“All of you bring to the table something that is unique: the special bond of having served your country and of remembering those lessons and being willing to share those lessons with the rest of the country,” the presumed Democratic presidential nominee told veterans participating in a conference call arranged by the campaign.
From the start of his presidential bid, Kerry has stressed his service as a decorated naval officer in Vietnam. At critical moments of the Democratic primary race, he often surrounded himself with fellow Vietnam veterans, especially crewmates from the swift boats he commanded in the Mekong Delta.
Friday’s announcement marked an escalation in the campaign’s focus on veterans. John Hurley, who heads Kerry’s national outreach to veterans, announced the campaign had recruited coordinators for that effort in every state. He also said 100,000 veterans had signed up on Kerry’s website to support the campaign.
Kerry said he was receiving support not only from veterans, but also from large numbers of current members of the military.
“You would be amazed at the number of active-duty personnel who are coming up at events around the country ... and telling me how important it is for us to stand up and fight for those who are not able to speak out for themselves right now, for obvious reasons,” he said.
Later, dozens of veterans sat behind Kerry at a rally that drew more than 3,000 supporters to a University of Minnesota athletic center.
President Bush’s reelection campaign in May announced its own coalition of supporters who are veterans. And campaign officials said Friday they believed Bush enjoyed far more support among veterans than Kerry did.
They noted that the president had won endorsements from 40 Medal of Honor recipients and the Rolling Thunder veterans organization, which has 70 chapters nationwide.
Bush’s reelection team “is building the largest grass-roots veterans organization that any campaign has ever created,” said Steve Schmidt, a campaign spokesman.
Also Friday, the two campaigns continued a months-long feud about Bush’s record on veteran-related issues.
In his conference call and during the rally, Kerry reaffirmed his charge that Bush was guilty of a “real breach of faith” by failing to adequately fund healthcare and other services through the Veterans Administration. The Bush campaign released figures showing that overall VA funding, and funding specifically for veterans’ healthcare, had increased more than 40% since Bush took office.
For Kerry, the focus on veterans serves several political purposes, aides said. The most obvious is to draw strong support from them in November’s election.
According to the 2000 census, there are about 26.4 million veterans in the U.S., about one-eighth of the adult population. But surprisingly little is known about the voting behavior of veterans, because few exit polls for presidential elections have asked voters whether they served in the military.
Several national surveys this spring have found Bush leading among veterans. A senior Kerry advisor said the best evidence showed that most veterans leaned Republican and were likely to do so again this year. But he said that in a close race, a good showing by Kerry among veterans could prove crucial to the Massachusetts senator.
Still, the Kerry advisor acknowledged that the effort to highlight veteran support for the Democrat also was aimed at influencing nonveterans. The goal, the advisor said, is to convey Kerry’s commitment to the military at a time when credibility as commander in chief is looming as a pivotal test in the campaign.
“There’s no question it sends a larger message: strength and security,” said the advisor.
Friday’s spotlight on veterans came as part of an 11-day campaign swing during which Kerry has detailed his positions on several national security issues. He concludes the tour Sunday with a commencement address at a Michigan high school.
Over the period, Kerry has delivered speeches on improving America’s relations with other countries, reducing the threat of nuclear and biological terrorism, and strengthening the military. He has repeated several long-standing criticisms of Bush -- particularly in his charge that the president has isolated America from traditional allies -- but generally has been more restrained in his attacks than earlier in the campaign.
Much of Kerry’s message has seemed aimed more at demonstrating his command of national security issues than at establishing a clear distinction with Bush. Republicans noted that many of the initiatives Kerry announced closely tracked ideas Bush was pursuing.
One senior GOP strategist familiar with White House planning said that by muting the ideological contrast over foreign policy, Kerry risked repeating the mistakes of 1988 Democratic presidential nominee Michael S. Dukakis, who tried to frame that election as a choice based on “competence, not ideology.”
“It is Dukakis with a twist,” said the Republican strategist, who asked not to be named. “They are now in essence accepting the central thrust of the Dukakis strategy to say: ‘We are like Bush, but we will be able to execute properly.’ I’m not certain that sells for the long term.”