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Obama, Clinton vie for military votes

Democrats Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama are battling for the support of a town dominated by the home of the 82nd Airborne Division.

world Updated: May 02, 2008 22:15 IST

Promising a strong military and better care for veterans, Democrats Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama are battling for the support of a town dominated by the home of the 82nd Airborne Division.

With its big Army base at Fort Bragg, the immediate focus in Fayetteville, North Carolina -- motto: "History, Heroes and a Hometown Feeling" -- is the state's Democratic primary election next week.

But Obama and Clinton, in a close fight to be their party's nominee to run in November's presidential election, also hope to make inroads across America into the traditional support for Republicans among military voters.

Despite the unpopularity of the Iraq war, analysts say that will not be easy against the Republican candidate, Sen. John McCain, a former Navy pilot and prisoner of war in Vietnam.

Democrats believe long, repeated and grueling tours of duty will prompt some members of the military and their families to back Obama or Clinton, who want to pull troops out.

"They're tired of the deployments. It's back to back to back," said Rebecca Rebrook, a volunteer coordinator at the local Clinton campaign office, where a home-made poster on the wall says "You're My Commander in Chief" in felt pen.

Rebrook, whose husband served in the Army for 20 years, says Clinton's case is helped by the support of former top brass such as retired Army Gen. Hugh Shelton, a North Carolina native and ex-chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

"That's a big plus in her department," said Rebrook.

'There's got to be change'

Clinton, a New York senator, campaigned with Shelton last week in Fayetteville, home to the Army's Special Operations Command as well as the storied 82nd Airborne Division, whose troops have been sent to Iraq and Afghanistan.

Clinton's husband, former President Bill Clinton, held a rally in nearby Hope Mills this week.

An Army captain in camouflage uniform at Bill Clinton's event said soldiers were more likely to vote for a Democrat this year because they were disillusioned over Iraq, where 4,065 U.S. troops have died since the war began in March 2003.

"The military is broken, it's tired," said the 38-year-old officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity as troops may not voice political views publicly. "There's got to be a change."

There are more than 1.3 million US servicemembers on active duty and another 1.1 million reservists.

In appealing for their votes, Clinton and Obama offer some similar policies.

Both want to pull out of Iraq and pledge better health care for veterans. They favor increasing the size of U.S. ground forces, a process the Bush administration has already begun.

Both also tout Senate experience -- Clinton on the armed services committee and Obama on the veterans' affairs panel.

Clinton has more high-profile ex-officers behind her while Obama, an Illinois senator, stresses his opposition to the Iraq war from the start as evidence that he has the judgment to be commander-in-chief.

"He wouldn't get us involved in wars that we didn't need to get involved in," said Shirley McDougald, a 20-year Army veteran from Fayetteville who served in Vietnam and is volunteering with the Obama campaign.

Obama has also campaigned in Fayetteville. Vietnam veteran Paul Bucha, a recipient of the Medal of Honor, the highest US military accolade, held a series of events in the area last week to support him.

Youth Appeal

Analysts say Obama's appeal to young people may help with military voters as the average age in the armed forces is lower than the general US population, while Clinton's reputation for toughness could prove an asset.

Richard Kohn of the University of North Carolina said those attributes, combined with anger over Iraq, meant the Democrats could chip into the Republican support base in the military.

"I do think it's going to change a bit this year," said Kohn, an expert on civil-military relations.

Surveys show members of the military are more likely to vote Republican than civilians, although the extent of that bias is hard to quantify precisely.

Kohn said he still expects McCain to get a sizable majority of the military vote in the presidential election.

Peter Feaver of Duke University, another expert in the same field, said military voters would consider issues such as the economy as well as military matters when picking a candidate.

But he said Iraq was likely to be a big factor and McCain's criticism of the early conduct of the war, while arguing that U.S. troops should stay until their mission is complete, would resonate with many.

Feaver said McCain could also benefit because his years as a tenacious prisoner of war matched his political image as a senator unafraid of tough choices.

"He has a great biography," said Feaver. "The military story reinforces the Senate story and vice versa."