MINNEAPOLIS – Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry (search) issued a call Friday for his fellow military veterans to support his presidential campaign because "what we fought for is still at risk."
If Kerry can persuade veterans to vote for him, it could be an important boost to his campaign. Veterans have traditionally leaned toward voting Republican, but Kerry hopes his service in the Vietnam War (search) combined with anger over President Bush's handling of Iraq (search) and veterans benefits at home will attract those who have served.
Kerry formally kicked off his campaign for veterans Friday. Volunteer coordinators in all 50 states will try to recruit current and former soldiers. The goal is to sign up 1 million veterans to help get out the vote for Kerry in what officials say would be an unprecedented veterans organization in a presidential campaign.
"We're here because we understand that what we fought for is still at risk," Kerry said during a rally at the University of Minnesota. "We're here because we know that the story of America is an evolving story and that every generation gets its opportunity to be able to write a part of our history. We're here because right now this country needs to be put back on track, to change direction and begin to work again for everybody."
An estimated 26.4 million people, or better than one in seven voting-age Americans, have served in the U.S. military, according to 2000 Census figures analyzed by the Department of Veterans Affairs (search). Bush got more than half, 54 percent, of the veterans' vote in a CBS News poll released last week while Kerry had the support of four in 10 veterans.
In a two-way matchup in the poll, conducted May 20-23, Kerry was ahead 49 percent to 41 percent.
The Bush campaign also has a band of volunteers to seek out veterans. Dozens of veterans backing the president held their own rally and later marched across the University of Minnesota campus to protest outside the Kerry event.
Former Navy Lt. Kimani Jefferson said Kerry is waging a "frantic attempt to win the veterans vote."
"This is a man whose whole career is based off hypocrisy," Jefferson said, noting that the Kerry campaign plays up his heroism in Vietnam but seldom mentions his anti-war activism upon his return. He also criticized Kerry for missing a vote this week on a bill providing $25 billion for U.S. military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan (search). The bill passed 95-0.
The Bush administration has increased benefits, veterans' enrollment in VA health care and spending overall for that department, but also has found places in the system to save money. In one, the government barred new enrollment of higher-income veterans in the VA health care system unless their medical problems were directly related to their military service.
Kerry, although light on specifics, insists he would do better for veterans on their health care, pensions and more. For example, he has pledged to let all veterans who receive disability payments collect their full retirement pay.
Congress recently took steps toward ending the system of reducing military retirement pay by $1 for every dollar received in disability compensation, and Bush says he supports that goal. But critics argue that the plan would still penalize several hundred thousand veterans.
Regardless of who wins the Nov. 2 election, a 1998 decision to open VA health services to all veterans has left the government struggling to accommodate the demand for VA facilities