CHICAGO (AFP) — War hero John McCain should have been able to count on fellow veterans to back his White House bid, but Democrats have managed to trim the Republican lead by actively courting the military vote.
With the United States engaged in two unpopular wars, the military vote is worth more than the relatively small number of ballots it represents.
Democrats are hoping the visible support of top former commanders and troops on the ground will help overcome a decades-long reputation that they are weak on defense.
Republicans continue to beat the drums of patriotism in an attempt to distract voters from the worsening economic crisis.
McCain meanwhile has built his campaign narrative around his lifelong service to his country and his ability to lead in dangerous times.
The former navy fighter pilot who spent five and a half years in a Vietnamese prison camp pauses every rally and town meeting to thank the "guys in the funny hats" for their military service.
He vows to bring troops home from Iraq "in victory and honor, not in defeat" to chase Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden "to the gates of hell" and to "fight for what's right for America."
And the Arizona senator has mounted constant attacks on the judgment and experience of Democratic rival Barack Obama, a 47-year-old first term senator who has never served in the military.
Yet McCain is expected to win the military vote by a narrower margin on November 4 than President George W. Bush did in 2004, even though Bush sat out the Vietnam war in the Texas national guard and was running against decorated Vietnam veteran John Kerry.
"The best guess is Bush won (the military vote) 60-40 and I'm guessing it will be lower than that for McCain," said Peter Feaver, a professor at Duke University who specializes in civil-military relations.
A Gallup survey in early August found 56 percent of veterans supported McCain while only 34 percent planned to vote for Obama.
At the same point in the 2004 presidential race, 55 percent of veterans backed Bush and 39 percent backed Kerry.
Since then, McCain has fallen sharply in the national polls and Obama has expanded his lead from three points to eight in Gallup's tracking of registered voters.
It is likely that McCain has also lost support among veterans, Feaver said, explaining that while members of the military tend to "skew on the Republican side," they also tend to track the sentiment of the general population.
Democrats have also "assiduously courted the military" in the years since the terrorist attacks of September 11, he added.
They sharply criticized the Bush administration for neglecting returning veterans following the scandal over conditions at the Walter Reed Medical Center and have pushed through legislation which would improve medical benefits and expand college funding for returning veterans.
"Then you have Obama, who has exceptional appeal to three groups over-represented in the military: African Americans, Latinos and young people," Feaver said in a recent interview.
Obama, who served on the senate's veterans affairs committee and has been active in expanding benefits and fighting homelessness among veterans, has also tapped into discontent among veterans frustrated with the way the Iraq war has been handled and the strain that multiple deployments has put on families.
He has called for a staged withdraw from Iraq and greater focus on the war in Afghanistan and regularly asks injured veterans to speak on his behalf at rallies and even at the Democratic National Convention.
His highly organized grassroots campaign has set up chapters of Veterans and Military Families for Obama across the country to knock on doors and make calls on his behalf.
And he recently added Colin Powell, Bush's former secretary of state and the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to his tally of endorsements by retired generals.
There are plenty of veterans who believe McCain's military service is sufficient testament to his character and ability to be commander-in-chief.
"He's always been a hero of mine," said Vietnam veteran Mike Lorenzini, 59 who has followed McCain's career for years and read all his books.
"I might not agree with everything he says but he's not going to do anything he feels is bad for the country and its people," Lorenzini said.
"He's got conviction and character. That's what draws me to him."
Retired marine Brady Williams, 55, considers McCain a "good American."
"I think the world community wouldn't be as ready to test him as they would Obama," Williams told AFP at a recent McCain rally in Durango, Colorado.
"He's got the experience."
The military vote proved critical in 2000 when absentee ballots helped Bush win Florida. Whether McCain can be helped in the same way remains to be seen.
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