By Thomas Beaumont
NORFOLK, Va. -- The far-flung swing states that have the most sway in the presidential election have something else in common -- a large share of military veterans who are getting special attention from the fiercely dueling campaigns.
In a White House campaign this hard-fought, no interest group can be ignored. But veterans are an especially prized group since so many live in battleground states -- including Colorado, Florida, New Hampshire, Nevada, North Carolina and Virginia.
Backing those who have served the country also sends a feel-good patriotic message to the electorate at large. And although veterans traditionally lean Republican, both candidates see an opening to win over veterans this year.
The next president will face U.S. troops returning from Afghanistan and a continuing budget crisis with veterans benefits under scrutiny.
Navy veteran Rob Meurer fears for his own livelihood at a northern Virginia aerospace manufacturer if military spending cuts are enacted during a second administration for President Barack Obama. Defense cuts "could devastate our military and our business," Meurer said.
"We simply cannot afford cuts to the VA," Ewing said.
The candidates are reaching out to veterans in all nine of the most competitive states as part of a system of targeting voters by specific backgrounds and lifestyle. Veterans account for about 17 percent of registered voters nationally, but more than that in most of the battleground states. It's a predominantly male voting bloc, one with a high propensity to register and turn out, which could help Romney offset Obama's edge among female voters.
Florida has the most with 1.6 million veterans -- one-fifth of the state's registered voters -- as well as nearly 30 military bases or installations. Among the battleground states, Nevada, New Hampshire, Colorado and North Carolina also run higher than average, and have varying combinations of bases, military academies and veterans' centers.
But nowhere is the fight over the military vote more apparent than in Virginia, the home of 822,000 veterans. Many live in the shadow of Norfolk Naval Station, the world's largest naval base. The sprawling complex has a population the size of Orlando, Fla., and is the economic magnet of Tidewater region.
Reminders of the military's dominance are everywhere in the Norfolk area. Fighter jets roar above rows of imposing warships docked in Hampton Roads Harbor.
It is also home to the Norfolk Naval Shipyard, in nearby Portsmouth, the Navy's largest industrial installation. And Virginia has production facilities for a long list of military contractors such as General Dynamics, Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman, who together employ hundreds of thousands in the state.
Romney says GOP lawmakers made a mistake in supporting the plan. Obama too has vowed that the automatic cuts will not take place.
"Nothing is more important than keeping America strong, and you hear it in Romney," said Bob Anderson, a retired Navy veteran from Milburn in northern Virginia.
Romney and Obama are running neck and neck in Virginia, a state Obama carried in 2008 and which Romney needs to reach the electoral threshold.
Romney also accuses Obama of doing too little to expedite the backlog of claims for disability, pension and educational benefits at the Department of Veterans Affairs. That criticism echoes through a Virginia Beach Republican phone bank, where veterans and their spouses volunteer.
"Veterans always found more for us. We need to find more for them," said Elizabeth Blackley, a veteran wife and Virginia Beach volunteer.
Overall, veterans' issues don't even crack the top 10 in national polls of campaign priorities, where the federal budget deficit, health care, terrorism and illegal immigration run far behind jobs.
The veteran vote has hardly been a bellwether in recent elections.
In 2008, Republican nominee John McCain, a Vietnam War veteran and former prisoner of war, beat Obama, who has no military experience, by 10 percentage points among voters who said they had served in the military, according to exit polls. Republican President George W. Bush in 2004 won 57 percent of voters who said they had served, compared to 41 percent for Democrat John Kerry, a decorated Vietnam War veteran. Bush had served in the Texas Air National Guard.
Romney, who has no military service, led Obama among active duty military and veterans, 59 to 37, in a national Gallup poll taken this month.
Although trailing with veterans overall, Obama leads among younger and minority veterans.
The president points to winding down wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, increasing the budget for the VA and enacting programs aimed at providing veterans with education, employment and housing.
"When our troops come home and take off their uniform, we will serve them as well as they've served us -- because if you fought for this country, you shouldn't have to fight for a job or a roof over your heard when you come home," Obama said last month in Miami.
Obama's outreach in specific niches of veterans that reflect his overall appeal are seen as keys to keeping Romney at bay in Colorado, Florida and Nevada.
"The veterans' community is not monolithic," Obama's veteran outreach coordinator Rob Diamond said.
Obama's team has in turn criticized Romney for suggesting last year that he was open to allowing a private-insurance voucher system for veterans' health care.
That suggestion so troubled Vietnam veteran Ed Meagher of Great Falls, Va., that he began volunteering for the Obama campaign. The retired VA administrator now leads Obama's campaign outreach for veterans in northern Virginia.
"I tell fellow vets, if you're willing to say vets should be willing to take cuts like everyone else, I just have a big problem with that," said Meagher. "That's a violation, and it's dishonorable."
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