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Inside Politics

Recent vets entering new battlefield of politics

By Kathleen Kingsbury

Marine David Ashe, right, speaks with Iraqis in the city of As Samawah in this undated photo.
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America Votes 2004

(CNN) -- With much of the 2004 presidential race debate focused on military service or the lack of it, a new crop of war veterans from the modern-day battlegrounds of Iraq and Afghanistan are entering politics for the first time.

They are veterans like Marine Corps Major-elect David Ashe, who is running for the chance to represent Virginia's 2nd Congressional District, fresh from duty in Iraq, where he worked on reconstructing the country's legal system last summer.

Like many veteran candidates before him, Ashe tells potential voters his military service gives him expertise that can be applied to the political arena. After Iraq, he says, "I clearly see how we can do better."

Transforming a military career into one in politics is a practice as old as the nation itself, with George Washington forging the path that would later be followed by many political aspirants, from foxhole grunts to five-star generals.

In the 2004 presidential race, Democrat Sen. John Kerry has touted his military service as a testament to his leadership, integrity and strength during wartime. So too, do other veterans running for other posts.

"I saw up close these men and woman putting their lives on the line for the war on terror," says Republican Ed Herman, a former Army interrogator in Afghanistan. He faces former presidential candidate Rep. Dennis Kucinich in Ohio's 2nd district. "It gives you an unique perspective on public service." (Special Report: America Votes 2004, the Republican convention)

"I make sure people know first thing that I am a Marine Corps officer," says Brad Jewitt, the Republican candidate in Maryland's 5th district. "It's my most important qualification."

Voters, however, don't always take a candidate's military experience into account, according to Peter Feaver, a Duke University political science professor who studies military voting patterns.

The United States has never had a president in wartime without military experience, and Feaver cannot predict whether or not this will factor into this year's presidential campaign. But he assumes its effect will be minor.

"It really only matters on the margins. Americans just don't see it as an important requirement," Feaver explains. "It's always just been a bonus."

Feaver says President Bill Clinton's 1996 re-election campaign exemplifies this voting pattern. The Democratic Party may now present Kerry's Vietnam service as an advantage over President George W. Bush's time in the National Guard, but in 1996, they argued the opposite.

This voting attitude has spilled over to congressional races. Until the 1990s, a majority of representatives were former soldiers, but it has since dropped to less than 20 percent, says retired Rear Admiral James Carey.

Noticing this trend, Carey and other veterans started the National Defense PAC in 2000, a political action committee that promotes veteran candidates from both parties.

Understanding the trials of battle is especially important now in wartime, Carey stresses.

"To know what it is like to sleep in a foxhole, not to get the spare parts you need or the body armor, those experiences make you learn how to prioritize spending," Carey says.

Refocusing government priorities led Marine Corps veteran Steve Brozak to challenge Rep. Mike Pederson in New Jersey's 7th district. A lifelong Republican, Brozak says a tour of duty in the Middle East in 2003 showed him the Iraq war was "ill-conceived," resulting in drain on resources in the greater war on terrorism.

Upon returning home, he changed parties and is now running as a Democrat.

"Our military is being stretched too thin, to the point of being broken for the foreseeable future," Brozak asserts. "We are asking too much and not giving enough, and we are certainly not any safer than before September 11."

Republicans Jewitt and Herman also vow to work to turn more congressional and White House attention toward military and veterans' issues. Both advocate a pay raise for enlisted troops and a significant increase in veteran services.

"There's only so much money to go around," Herman says, "but anytime he asks for supplemental military spending, the president needs to remember soldiers, especially those injured, who will need help once they're back home."

State governments also need a military perspective, says Kentucky state senate candidate Christopher Smrt.

An Army lieutenant colonel working in Iraq until March 2004, Smrt is one of several recent veterans running in elections at the state level, including Missouri Republican gubernatorial candidate Matt Blunt. Smrt stresses that states have a responsibility toward their veterans, especially in old-age homes and burial services.

"It sounds morbid, but burial is one of the benefits the military offers," says Smrt, a Republican running in Louisville's 19th district, "and states have an obligation to have enough plots."

Military candidates, though, cannot be assured that even fellow veterans will vote for them, according to National Journal's Chuck Todd. The country has about 25 million veterans, who make up about 30 percent of voters. But veterans have never been studied as a voting bloc in previous elections, Todd says.

"So both parties aren't sure where they stand with veterans," Todd recently told CNN's "Inside Politics." "But they know they need to stand somewhere."

A recent CNN/Gallup poll shows veterans slightly favoring Bush over Kerry, 51-46 percent. Todd says, however, most veterans are now over 50, which might make them lean toward Democratic candidates.

"Instinctively the conventional wisdom says, OK, veterans are probably a Republican voting bloc," Todd explains. "But older voters are usually very much more split or even lean Democrat, because they more lean on the government safety net."

Whether Democrat or Republican, all of the recent veterans running for Congress face an uphill battle in November. Each faces well-established incumbents and will have to convince voters they can bring home the bacon to their districts.

In North Dakota, this means keeping two struggling U.S. Air Force bases open.

Republican candidate Duane Sand, a Navy reservist who spent 2002 aboard a U.S. submarine, dismisses any concern he'd carry less weight than his opponent Rep. Earl Pomerey. He details an extensive plan, including Canadian border patrol, to keep the bases viable.

"People on those bases know they can trust me," Sand, who has 20 years of military experience, says. "I've been in their shoes."

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