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Military Vote Seen As A Key To Capturing Virginia

Mitt Romney takes the stage at a campaign rally at the Military Aviation Museum in Virginia Beach, Va., on Sept. 8.
Brian Snyder
Mitt Romney takes the stage at a campaign rally at the Military Aviation Museum in Virginia Beach, Va., on Sept. 8.

Both presidential campaigns are focusing on just a few swing states, and the relatively few remaining undecided voters. One of those states is Virginia, where a key swing constituency is military veterans.

Troops and veterans have long been considered a natural part of the Republican base. But President Obama is pushing hard for the veterans' vote to help him in a state he captured in 2008.

Mitt Romney has been courting the military vote as well, and in Hampton Roads, it shows. It's the area around Norfolk, Newport News and Virginia Beach, home to the world's largest Navy base, as well as Air Force, Marine and Army bases.

President Obama is greeted by naval officers at Naval Air Station Norfolk, in Norfolk, Va., on Sept. 4.
Mandel Ngan / AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images
President Obama is greeted by naval officers at Naval Air Station Norfolk, in Norfolk, Va., on Sept. 4.

It's an attractive place for military families to live and retire. And judging by the posters on the lawns in Virginia Beach, this seems like Mitt Romney country.

Cathy Boyd, a military mom and wife, has a "Romney/Ryan" bumper sticker. She's out with her granddaughters to watch the jets warm up for a show at the airfield of Naval Air Station Oceana.

"I'm supporting Romney because he has class, he has character, he has deep moral courage and conviction, because our country can't stand four more years of Obama," says Boyd.

She expects military families all agree with her, but she also knows that Obama won Virginia — including this military-heavy congressional district — in 2008.

Locals say they're getting pounded with attack ads from both sides. With their push, Democrats are hoping to carve out a few more votes from troops and veterans who have long been considered a part of the Republican base.

But Boyd says many military families don't trust Obama, citing the threat of defense budget cuts required to take effect in January unless Congress and the president act.

Military cuts worry people here in Hampton Roads, where so many people are connected to the defense industry or the military itself. Boyd was referring to the hundreds of billions of dollars to be automatically cut from Pentagon spending if Congress cannot break the budget impasse. Whom you blame for those looming cuts could pretty much predict whom you're going to support in the election.

"Anecdotally, I would say that probably 80 percent of the people I know are politically conservative," says Paul Pierce, a retired Navy master chief petty officer.

He faults President Obama's leadership for allowing the budget logjam. The national debt is his No. 1 issue; he also mentions support of Israel.

Pierce points to the spot up along the Norfolk waterfront where Romney chose to announce his running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, last month, with a battleship in the background. Romney was here again last week pushing for an increase in fighter jet production.

Pierce knows the president has also campaigned hard here, but Pierce is skeptical that military voters will cross over to Obama.

"Everybody's trying to peel off the small numbers and for the military vote I don't have any sense that they're swinging toward Obama at all," he says.

But Democrats think they can win a substantial number of military votes — in part because veterans don't all vote the same way. Nationwide, the majority of veterans are older, white, and male — classic Republican voters. But younger vets are different.

"The military vote cannot be taken for granted," says Tyre Nelson, 42, a retired Navy lieutenant, who says he has been a lifelong Republican but this year he expects to cross party lines.

"In 2008, I voted for Sen. John McCain, but this year I am supporting President Obama for re-election," says Nelson. "He has proven that he can support veterans' issues, over the last four years, not through any sort of discourse but through actions, actual legislation."

Nelson points to improvements in military health care, and programs to hire veterans. He also highlights what he calls the recklessness of the George W. Bush administration, and the wars that cost lives and money. Nelson says those eight years cost Republicans credibility with the military.

He thinks Obama has made inroads with military voters — enough to carry Hampton Roads and perhaps Virginia. But it's clear — no one can take veterans' vote for granted, which is why both campaigns are pulling out the stops to court them.

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Quil Lawrence is a New York-based correspondent for NPR News, covering veterans' issues nationwide. He won a Robert F. Kennedy Award for his coverage of American veterans and a Gracie Award for coverage of female combat veterans. In 2019 Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America honored Quil with its IAVA Salutes Award for Leadership in Journalism.
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