Everything may be overshadowed by the economy in this election, but veterans benefits and military policy can be deciding factors.
Even as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have bowed to concerns about the economy for most voters, the welfare of the men and women who come back from the fighting has become an intense issue in several Minnesota races.
No politician runs on an anti-veteran platform. But candidates across the country are being accused this fall of voting against veterans' interests.
One example is in Minnesota's Third Congressional District, where Iraq War veteran and Marine officer Ashwin Madia is running against Erik Paulsen. Outside groups have aired ads accusing Republican Paulsen of voting against veterans' interests while in the Minnesota House, including on a GI Bill, even though he says one reason he voted against the measure was that it didn't contain enough aid. He later voted for a new bill that increased spending on vets.
A different group, including Republican U.S. Rep. John Kline, a retired Marine colonel, has said it is outraged that Democrat Madia has besmirched the dignity of the Marine Corps by using stock footage of its elite Silent Drill team in a campaign ad emphasizing teamwork and discipline.
"I called a lot of Marines and they are really, really offended by it," Kline said recently.
After Kline and Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty appeared at a news conference with Paulsen to criticize Madia, the veterans' group VoteVets.org, which has endorsed Madia, blasted Paulsen for "hiding behind a congressman to launch smears" against the Marine and Iraq veteran.
Paulsen's campaign has admitted it must walk a delicate line in decrying the tactics of the Madia campaign while recognizing his service to his country. In the heat of the moment, though, one Paulsen supporter, a Marine vet, said recently about Madia's Iraq service: "He was not a warrior, he was a lawyer as I understand it."
As for the official position of the Marine Corps?
"Mr. Madia, a former Marine, is not on active duty, he's a private citizen exercising his right and privilege to run for political office," said Maj. David Nevers, a Corps spokesman. "While a few seconds of video in his campaign ad depict Marines marching in a ceremonial parade, this is not considered a violation of law and does not imply an endorsement by the Marine Corps."
Meanwhile, Kline, a member of the House Armed Services Committee, has found himself being criticized for not doing enough for returning veterans by his Second District Democratic opponent, Steve Sarvi, who is also a vet. Sarvi accused Kline of voting against a bill providing education benefits, but Kline has contended the vote was taken out of context. He voted for a later version of the bill after billions in tax increases were removed.
An important voting block
It's clear that no one can afford to write off veterans, who are one of the most consistent voting blocs. Veterans cast 16 percent of the ballots in the 2004 presidential election, and President Bush captured 55 percent of their vote.
Veterans historically have conservative sentiments. But that could be changing. This election cycle comes amid concerns that the military has been overstretched in Iraq and Afghanistan, and scandals like those over conditions at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center have suggested that troops weren't taken care of adequately once they came home.
A recent poll in Washington state found that veterans supported Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama over Republican John McCain, a highly decorated vet and former prisoner of war, 49 percent to 40 percent.
Several retired Marine Corps officers responded to the poll expressing anger at Republicans, the degree of their dissatisfaction surprising pollsters.
"If Republicans are going to have a core constituency, what is it if not that?" said Christopher Parker, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Washington, which conducted the poll. "The military is about good order and discipline and taking care of their own. Republicans are being seen as having failed miserably at all three."
When it comes to military donors, Iraq war critic Obama has held his own with the more hawkish McCain. Until August, Obama had received nearly six times as much money from troops deployed overseas at the time of their contribution as McCain had, according to an analysis by the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics. While Obama continued to lead in military donors with overseas addresses, McCain surged in the final months of the campaign to take the lead among military donors overall, fueled largely by employees of the Department of Defense.
In the Third District race, one of the most striking differences between Paulsen and Madia has been on Iraq policy. While acknowledging that mistakes were made in the leadup to the war and immediately afterward, Paulsen maintains that U.S. policy should be dictated by commanders on the ground. Madia said civilian oversight is needed and advocates a removal of troops within an 18- to 24-month time frame.
It's that distinction that has the attention of another veterans organization, Vets for Freedom, which is endorsing Paulsen Saturday and will work stumping for him this weekend. Madia has been endorsed by VetsPAC, which works on veteran disability issues; Veterans' Vision, an advocacy organization for homeless veterans; and VoteVets.org.
Peter Hegseth of Minneapolis, chairman of Vets for Freedom who served in Iraq from 2005 to 2006, said support for the troops includes supporting their mission "even when it's unpopular."
Mark Brunswick • 651-222-1636