Mr. Romney, the GOP’s presidential nominee, gave a speech to some 200 people at an American Legion post in Springfield, Va., a city that sits at the heart of the commonwealth’s booming suburban corridor with deep connections to the military and defense contractors.
At the same time, Mr. Obama addressed some 7,000 in Virginia Beach, Va., home to the congressional district with the highest percentage of veterans and studded with military installations from edge to edge.
Recent polls indicate that Romney has a double-digit lead among veteran voters in the key swing states of Ohio, Florida, and Colorado – and a similar 12-point advantage in Virginia, 52 percent to 40 percent, in one recent poll. More than 1 in 10 Virginia voters (12.8 percent) are veterans, according to the 2010 Census figures and the US Department of Veterans Affairs.
The two candidates took different paths toward addressing defense, services for veterans, and foreign policy before ultimately arguing that their respective economic plans offer a better way to ensure America’s strength.
In Springfield, Romney characterized defense spending cuts slated for next year as “unthinkable and devastating” reductions that he never would have agreed to in the first place.
He critiqued the president in a sweep of foreign affairs – concerns about nuclear arsenals in North Korea and Iran, a “highly tumultuous” Pakistan, the slaughter of civilians in Syria, and an Egypt headed by a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, among other issues. “If you keep going around the world, it is still a troubling and dangerous world,” Romney said.
Romney also implied that he would break up jams in the veterans benefits system, calling mental health issues, in particular, a "crisis."
"We have huge numbers of our men and women returning from conflict that are seeking counseling, psychological counseling, and can’t find that counseling within our system," Romney said. "And, of course, record numbers of suicides."
In Virginia Beach, Obama let Sen. Jim Webb (D) of Virginia torch Romney on issues directly relating to veterans.
Senator Webb, a decorated veteran of the Vietnam War and a former undersecretary of the Navy, excoriated Romney for leaving out any mention of veterans or the current conflict in Afghanistan during his acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention, and he obliquely jabbed at Romney’s videotaped remarks at a closed-door fundraiser in which he implied that 47 percent of Americans were essentially “takers” from government’s largesse.
“Those young Marines that I led have grown older now,” Webb said. “They paid, some with their lives, some through wounds and disabilities, some through their emotional scars.... And not only did they pay. They will not say this, so I will say it for them. They are owed, if nothing else, at least a mention, some word of thanks and respect, when a presidential candidate who is their generational peer makes a speech accepting his party’s nomination to be commander in chief.”
Obama, during his remarks, called out his foreign policy achievements, including ending the war in Iraq, winding down America’s military involvement in Afghanistan, and eliminating Al Qaeda mastermind Osama bin Laden.
But on the issue Romney first raised, looming cuts in defense spending, Obama and Webb were silent.
The $55 billion in reduced defense spending in 2013 is paired with equal cuts to nondefense spending in programs such as education and social services alongside lower payments to Medicare providers.
This automatic spending reduction, known in Washington-speak as the “sequester,” came into being during the debt-ceiling negotiations of 2011. After finding $1 trillion in spending reductions over the next decade, members of Congress of both parties and Obama agreed further cuts would be the price to pay if a special congressional committee could not agree to some $1.2 trillion in lower federal deficits during that time.
That committee came up short – and in doing so, Romney said, could cost Virginia 136,000 jobs.
Those budget cuts are not lost on many in northern Virginia, including Rick Downer of Springfield, Va., who came to see Romney on Thursday.
“I’m very worried about it,” says Mr. Downer, who works in defense contracting with the Navy. He has supported Romney because “I would think that a Republican would be more in tune with the Defense Department.”
On the matter of jobs, both candidates tied veterans' issues to the economy – Romney arguing that a strong military demands a strong economic system, and Obama discussing his interest in economic fairness to provide for vets once they return to the US.
Romney said former secretaries of State have told him that “our diplomatic power and our military power flows from our economic power, and with our economy struggling, that is a long-term trend which is unacceptable to America.”
Romney emphasized the day’s news that gross domestic product (GDP) was curtailed from 1.7 percent in the second quarter to a revised 1.3 percent.
Obama, on the other hand, emphasized what Webb succinctly called the “American trifecta” of “opportunity, fairness, and security,” a system that provides for veterans when they return home from battle.
“Nobody who fights for this country,” Obama said, “should have to fight for a job or a roof over their heads when they come home.”