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Veterans. They abound at John Kerry campaign events. And they are all over the Senator’s Web site.

There’s a page on the Senator’s Web site that lists his war record. There is a link to join Veterans for Kerry and another to sign up for a Veterans Phone-A-Thon. You can watch a short movie, “Brother-in-Arms,” on the Web site if you want to learn more about “the unique friendship forged by John Kerry and his five crewmates on a swift boat in the Mekong Delta.” [IMGCAP(1)]

And then there are the press releases. “Over 10,000 Iowa Veterans to Caucus for Kerry” (Jan. 13, 2004); “Senator Max Cleland Leads Kerry’s ‘Veterans Brigade’ across Iowa” (Jan. 16, 2004); and, most recently, “Utah Veterans Band Together for ‘Get Out the Kerry Vote’ ” (Feb. 19, 2004).

Whether you think Kerry is simply taking advantage of his military record and support from veterans, or if you believe he has crossed the line and is “using” veterans and his personal story in an unseemly way to distract from his legislative record, there is no doubting that the Senator is employing veterans the way other politicians have used the American flag.

Much was made immediately before and after Iowa by many in the media and by supporters of the Massachusetts Senator’s alleged strength among veterans. Have those veterans really rallied to Kerry’s side, helping him to victories in key early primary states?

Exit polls in seven of the first eight states to vote showed that Kerry performed better among veterans than among nonveterans, and in six of those states, he did better in veteran households than in households without a veteran. He performed particularly well among veterans and in veteran households in Oklahoma and Tennessee.

But in New Hampshire, Kerry actually ran 4 points worse among veterans than he did among nonveterans, 1 point worse in households with a veteran than in nonveteran households. And in no state did veterans constitute his margin of victory.

In some states, Kerry’s status as a veteran didn’t seem all that important. In Wisconsin, for example, veteran Kerry edged nonveteran Edwards 40 percent to 37 percent among veterans, hardly an overwhelming show of strength by the Massachusetts Senator. And in South Carolina, veterans went for their nonveteran native by 42 percent to 33 percent over Kerry.

Overall, as a voting group, veterans were an asset to Kerry, but it is hard to see them as crucial to the Massachusetts Senator’s victories.

No matter how well Kerry performed among veterans in the early primaries, it’s impossible to know whether he will do equally well among veterans in the general election. For instance, does Kerry have special appeal to Democrats who, like him, served in the armed forces in general and in Vietnam in particular? Will independent and Republican veterans be attracted to Kerry more than they would be to any other liberal Democrat?

Make no mistake about it: Kerry’s military record is crucial to the candidate’s efforts in a general election. Indeed, it’s probably the main reason why some in his party view him as “more electable” than other Democratic presidential hopefuls.

Kerry has sought to use his bravery in Vietnam to inoculate himself from GOP attacks about his patriotism and, more importantly, his foreign policy record. He is attempting to make it impossible for this President Bush to do what George H.W. Bush did to Michael Dukakis in 1988: paint the Democrat as unpatriotic and weak on national security.

But count me as skeptical that at the end of the day, Kerry’s record of military service and personal record of bravery will neutralize GOP attacks. Unlike Dukakis, Kerry has a lengthy legislative record on defense and foreign policy that Republicans can and will use to paint him as a liberal on defense issues. No, the Senator would not look silly sitting in a tank. But he has other vulnerabilities.

Kerry’s military service surely is an asset and means that the Republicans will have to spend more time and money to create a different portrait of the Senator. But they have months and millions of dollars to do so, and Kerry may well find himself on the defensive on military, national defense and national security issues before the race is over.

Stuart Rothenberg is editor of the Rothenberg Political Report.

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