Weary Warriors Favor Obama
COLUMBIA, S.C.(Reuters) - Mack McDowell likes to spend time at the local knife and gun show "drooling over firearms," as he puts it. Retired after 30 years in the U.S. Army, he has lined his study with books on war, framed battalion patches from his tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, a John Wayne poster, and an 1861 Springfield rifle from an ancestor who fought in the Civil War.
But when it comes to the 2012 presidential election, Master Sergeant McDowell is no hawk.
Paul "because of his unchanging stand against overseas involvement." In November, McDowell plans to vote for the candidate least likely to wage "knee-jerk reaction wars."
Disaffection with the politics of shock and awe runs deep among men and women who have served in the military during the past decade of conflict. Only 32 percent think the war in Iraq ended successfully, according to a Reuters/Ipsos poll. And far more of them would pull out of Afghanistan than continue military operations there.
While the 2012 campaign today is dominated by economic and domestic issues, military concerns could easily jump to the fore. Nearly 90,000 U.S. troops remain in Afghanistan. Israeli politicians and their U.S. supporters debate over whether to bombIran's nuclear facilities as partisans bicker over proposed Pentagon budget cuts.
Mitt Romney has accused President Obama of "a dangerous course" in wanting to cut $1 trillion from the defense budget - although the administration's actual proposal is a reduction of $487 billion over the next decade.
"We should not negotiate with theTaliban," the former Massachusetts governor contends. "We should defeat the Taliban." He has blamed Obama for "procrastination toward Iran" and advocates arming Syrian rebels.
Romney, along with his primary rivalsRick Santorum and Newt Gingrich, had also accused Obama of "appeasement" toward U.S. enemies - a charge that drew a sharp Obama rebuttal. "Ask Osama bin Laden and the 22 out of 30 top al-Qaeda leaders who've been taken off the field whether I engage in appeasement," the president shot back. He has reproached GOP candidates: "Now is not the time for bluster."
If the election were held today, Obama would win the veteran vote by as much as seven points over Romney, higher than his margin in the general population.
FADING COOL FACTOR
The GOP's heated rhetoric, aimed at the party's traditional hawks, might be expected to resonate with veterans. Yet in interviews in South Carolina, a military-friendly red state, many former soldiers expressed anger at the toll of a decade of war, questioned the legitimacy ofGeorge W. Bush's Iraq invasion, and worried that the surge in Afghanistan won't make a difference in the long run.
"We looked real cool going into Iraq waving our guns," said McDowell, 50, who retired from the 82d Airborne Division in November with a Legion of Merit and two Bronze Stars. "But people lost their lives, and it made no sense."
Now he worries. "I really don't like the direction we are going, how we seem to come closer daily towards a war with Iran."
In Columbia, where McDowell lives in a leafy subdivision, the streets are named for American Revolutionary war heroes, and the Confederate battle flag still flies on the capitol grounds. Pizza parlors offer a 10 percent discount to uniformed soldiers from nearby Fort Jackson, one of eight military bases that pump $13 billion a year into the state's economy.
Inexit polls, a quarter of voters in January's primary identified themselves as veterans.
Among them were Karen and Kelly Grafton, devout Southern Baptists who live in the small town of Prosperity, outside Columbia, and spend their vacations at Nascar races. They voted for Santorum.
"He just came off a little bit better than the others," said Karen Grafton, 51, a real estate agent who served 20 years in the Air Force. "He stuck to his story about what he has done and what he will do."
The Graftons' votes, however, like many veterans', can't be taken as evidence of a hard-line military stance. Registered Republicans, they cast their ballots for Obama in 2008 because he promised to bring the troops home from Iraq.
"I went to war for George Bush," said Grafton, 48, a retired Army master sergeant who served in special operations units in Somalia and Iraq. "But we can't keep policing the world."