US veterans remain sharply divided
Vietnam vets in particular are torn over Kerry's combat record, while support for Bush is far from solidified.
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But beyond direct military or foreign affairs experience, Dr. Thompson suggests, personality and temperament may be the best indicators of how effectively Kerry will fulfill the role of commander in chief.Skip to next paragraph
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"Ronald Reagan was at peace with himself, and that made him an effective leader," Thompson says. "In emotional terms, Kerry seems more like Reagan than the current president does."
Combat experience is not necessarily a plus, of course. In 1972, the decorated World War II pilot - George McGovern - was trounced by Richard Nixon, who had been a noncombatant naval officer.
Opinion polls suggest that Kerry has work to do in convincing veterans that they should vote for him. Most Americans registered to vote would pick Kerry (49-41 percent), according to a CBS News poll taken last month. But among vets, Bush had the edge 54-40 percent.
In a survey taken just before the last presidential election, 64 percent of active duty military officers identified with Republicans and only 8 percent claimed to be Democrats. Enlisted men and women may be more evenly divided, but it can also be assumed that political conservatives are more likely to enlist - and eventually become veterans.
The Gallup organization finds that veterans are more conservative than the general population, with a 3-to-1 - as opposed to a 2-to-1 - conservative-to-liberal ratio.
"From these data it would appear Bush would have an advantage over his Democratic opponent among veterans, but maybe not as large as one might think," the polling organization reports. "In the most recent Gallup Poll, 21 percent of Bush supporters were veterans, compared with 17 percent of Kerry supporters."
At the same time, there are indications that vets' support for Bush - particularly on war issues - may be soft. While vets are more likely than most people to say the Iraq war has been worth the cost, a majority (55-40 percent) still say it wasn't, and a slim majority in the CBS News survey (51-47 percent) said the war "is going badly."
Policymakers who have served in Vietnam - Colin Powell, for example - seem to have been changed by it. Would that be true for John Kerry were he to become commander in chief?
"Although supporting the Iraq invasion for political reasons - to be seen as a centrist - privately, the Vietnam War may have made Kerry leery of foreign military excursions," says Ivan Eland, national security expert at the Independent Institute in Oakland, Calif. "Of course, this will probably be at the margins. I would bet a month's paycheck that US interventionist foreign policy, backed by numerous vested private and public interests, will probably continue no matter who is elected president."
All of this leaves a large number of the nation's 25 million veterans among the ranks of the undecided.
"Many of us are not sure we're ready to trust national defense to the Democrats in general or John Kerry in particular," says John Allen Williams, professor of political science at Loyola University Chicago and a retired US Naval Reserve captain.
At the same time, says Dr. Williams, "Bush should worry that there are a lot of people like me - retired military - who are not ready to sign up for him."