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Originally published Monday, July 7, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Guest columnist

Veterans could be the swing vote

Republicans count on votes from military veterans, but even though presumed candidate John McCain is a war hero, the GOP should not count...

Special to The Times

Republicans count on votes from military veterans, but even though presumed candidate John McCain is a war hero, the GOP should not count on the vet vote in November.

In the 2004 election, 55 percent of veterans voted for President Bush, versus 44 percent for John Kerry. But this time, Republican vets are angry, and, if my research is correct, things are about to change. This research suggests veterans are becoming increasingly alienated from the American political system, especially the Republican Party, long the party of choice.

Veterans, along with the rest of America, have witnessed the GOP's wrongdoing: sex scandals involving Sens. Larry Craig and David Vitter and Rep. Mark Foley. Garden-variety corruption practiced by Sen. Ted Stevens and Reps. Tom DeLay and Randy Cunningham, a Vietnam War hero. There's also the failure of President Bush and his Republican administration to provide speedy, effective aid to victims of Hurricane Katrina. As someone who served 10 years in the military, I know it values good order and discipline, as well as honor and competence.

On this score, the Republicans have failed veterans.

Many veterans, including those longtime Republican partisans, are also angry about mistreatment of veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, particularly those at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. A Republican administration started the war, but failed to properly care for the soldiers.

A retired 62-year-old Marine officer laments Republican refusal to do more for veterans. He says former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay forced Rep. Chris Smith, a longtime supporter of veterans issues, off the Veterans Affairs Committee because DeLay thought Smith asked too much for veterans. The former colonel concluded, "Republicans betrayed us ... They're trying to balance the budget on the backs of veterans."

The continued prosecution of a war in which the military is being needlessly destroyed also disturbs veterans. As far as many are concerned, the war in Afghanistan is a legitimate intervention, something necessary to stanch terrorism, but Iraq is another story. Many see it as a means for President Bush to exact revenge on Saddam Hussein and his supporters for an assassination attempt on his father, George H.W. Bush.

Many vets thus feel the military is being misused in Iraq, broken by a man who never served. A retired 59-year-old who was an enlisted man in Vietnam, said, "I liked Bush, but I put that in the past tense ... He started to get too cocky, and developed an arrogance that's really been disturbing."

Then there are sheer numbers. Veterans number 25 million, or 12.5 percent of the adult population. Their support is a potential windfall for the presidential candidate. In 2004, veterans cast 16 percent of all votes. This may not sound like a lot, but 16 percent of 122 million votes is 20 million. Moreover, relatively speaking, veterans don't stay home; they turn out: 80 percent of veterans voted in 2004, compared with 67 percent of nonveterans.

Since veterans are more likely than nonveterans to vote, it's likely that their disappointment with the Republicans will be to the advantage of the Democrats.

Thus, for every percentage point of the veteran vote that Republicans lose, the Democrats will gain 200,000 votes. In a close race, these numbers could make a difference.

If the stakes for the country were lower and the suffering more tolerable, the situation would be more than ironic. It would be downright funny.

Christopher Parker is assistant professor of political science at the University of Washington. He can be reached at csparker@u.washington.edu.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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