Claiming the support of voters whose endorsements are as valuable as their ballots, the presidential campaigns of John McCain and Barack Obama deployed competing groups of military veterans Monday morning, a few hundred yards apart at opposite ends of the state Capitol complex.

First up were supporters of McCain, praising the Arizona senator's military record and disparaging his opponent's lack of foreign-policy experience.

Next up, an hour later, were backers of Obama, criticizing McCain's alleged failure to support service members and veterans during his Senate career, while lauding his military service.

"Since Harry Truman, only one president has not been a military officer and I want that to continue," said Dennis Schulstad, a retired Air Force general who chairs Minnesota Veterans for McCain. "Senator Obama chose not to serve in the military. Senator McCain chose to devote his life to public service."

Speaking for Minnesota Veterans for Obama, Chuck Sporer, a retired Army sergeant who served in Vietnam, countered, "Senator McCain is a war hero and I respect him greatly, but for Senator McCain to suggest Senator Obama is not supporting our troops is just plain dishonest."

The scenes that played out Monday -- McCain's backers on the Capitol lawn, Obama's in a Capitol meeting room -- were matched in other cities across the nation as both campaigns made a bid for veterans' votes to kick off a week focused on foreign and military policy, largely because of intense coverage of Obama's travels to U.S. war zones and Europe.

The direct audience for the appeals is America's 26 million veterans, nearly 500,000 of them living in Minnesota, a potentially decisive voting bloc. The power of veterans as voters was dramatized in the 2004 election, when Sen. John Kerry's military service became a centerpiece of his campaign and a target for opponents who sought to discredit the Democratic nominee.

Both claim vets support

Republican presidential candidates have long outpolled their Democratic opponents among veterans, and Kerry lost the veteran vote to Bush by 16 percentage points.

Last month, an AP/Yahoo News poll found McCain leading Obama among veterans by a similar margin, 49 percent to 32 percent.

At the same time, AP found that Obama has a 4-to-3 edge in fundraising among donors who identify themselves as military personnel.

Both sides claimed to have the military and veterans in their corner Monday.

McCain's supporters gathered two dozen veterans for their news conference, while Obama's released the names of 65 Minnesota veterans who back their candidate.

Schulstad, citing the roughly 150 retired generals and admirals who have endorsed McCain, challenged the media: "Ask the Obama people how many they have."

Jim Bootz, a Navy veteran who chairs the DFL's veterans caucus, said the campaign hasn't "counted the total number yet" but contended that troops who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan will be receptive to Obama. "I don't think they're going to flock to more of the same," he said.

Obama trip lauded, criticized

The campaigns also sparred about Obama's travels to both war zones, largely undertaken in response to McCain's jabs about Obama's not having visited Iraq since 2006 and never going to Afghanistan.

Bootz said Obama's trip "is not a political stunt. He's going there to be informed, to get informed ... to be ready when the time comes to take over. He's been well-received over there."

Leo Thorsness, a Medal of Honor winner from Walnut Grove, Minn., who spent six years with McCain in a Vietnamese prison camp, said of the trip, "It's kind of goofy to make your policy and go over there and find facts."

Thorsness focused most of his remarks on the McCain he got to know while the two were imprisoned together in the "Hanoi Hilton," praising the candidate's "intellect, integrity and character."

He also swatted down rumors that have swirled in the blogosphere about McCain, such as special treatment he allegedly got while a prisoner, which Thorsness called "bald-faced lies."

"He suffered with the best of us," he said.

Bob von Sternberg • 612-673-7184