In Utah, McCain not necessarily a lock with military voters

Published October 12, 2008 10:31 am
Candidates' differing views on Iraq at isssue; Military wife in Sandy says, 'We've just got to start moving out'
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April Durrant is a proud military wife. Her husband did a tour of duty in Iraq in 2003. Now he is in Afghanistan.

"We've been in it for 20 years," Durrant says. "It's absolutely not for everyone. It's tough on people, tough on families to have a long career in the military."

As a career military couple, Durrant and her husband fall into a category of voters that conventional wisdom suggests is in the can for Sen. John McCain, a Navy veteran and branded war hero. But come Nov. 4, the Sandy couple will be tapping the touchscreen for Sen. Barack Obama - and they're not alone.

Like many military voters, the Durrants have several concerns - but chief among the issues driving their votes this election are the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Durrant says she supports the war effort in Afghanistan, where her husband is now training Afghan soldiers to fight the Taliban. While the candidates' stances on Afghanistan have varied in the past, Obama and McCain now agree more troops are needed there - where U.S. and coalition casualties are at an all-time high this year.

But most at issue for Durrant and many other military voters, are the candidates' differing opinions on Iraq.

"We've just got to start moving out of Iraq," Durrant says. "I don't feel we should have been there in the first place. We went of half-cocked and didn't plan for that war."

Obama - then a state senator from Illinois without a vote on the matter - opposed the invasion in 2003. McCain supported it, voting with the majority of the Senate to authorize President Bush to take action there.

Both candidates have, in the past, opposed bills that would fund U.S. troops in Iraq: Obama because a measure did not include a timeline for withdrawal, and McCain because it did.

McCain, who has long been critical of the Bush administration's failure to use "overwhelming" force in Iraq, supported the so-called surge, which increased the size of the force in Iraq by 30,000 military members. Obama opposed the strategy, which many believe was a key factor in the reduction of violence in Iraq over the past year.

Perhaps most importantly to military families like the Durrants is Obama has long been a vocal advocate of withdrawal from Iraq, although his plans for doing so "responsibly" have shifted. McCain has held that Iraq must "stand on its own as a democratic ally" before U.S. troops leave the country.

Durrant said she understands that she's likely in the minority among military voters. Indeed, a recent poll of about 4,300 readers of the Military Times - publications aimed at service members and their families - showed McCain with a nearly 3-to-1 lead over Obama among military members. Even in red-as-it-gets Utah, McCain's lead isn't that big.

While the Times cautioned that its readers are "older, more senior in rank and less ethnically diverse than the overall armed services," the poll was quickly cited on the Republican candidate's Web site - and by McCain supporters throughout the Internet.

The poll was further evidence that Obama may be having trouble bringing a traditionally conservative voting bloc into his corner, Peter Feaver, a Duke University political science professor, told the Times.

"A lot of people thought that eight years of frustration with the Bush administration was going to undermine that," Feaver said. "This evidence suggests that it hasn't undermined it as much as they thought, at least not yet."

The Military Times poll may be the most recent, but it's not the only data on the bloc. In June, Zogby International found McCain 7 points ahead of Obama among military members and their families. In 2004, incumbent President George Bush ran 12 points ahead of Democratic challenger Sen. John Kerry among the same group.

In the June poll, completed before the recent market crisis, 40 percent of military families named the economy as one of their issues of greatest concern. Many polls also show Obama doing significantly better than McCain among "pocketbook voters."

Meanwhile, a Salt Lake Tribune analysis of Federal Election Commission records show that Obama is running nearly even with - and may be exceeding - McCain in donations from military members.

Both men have collected more than a quarter of a million dollars - McCain's $297,000 to Obama's $284,000 - in direct donations greater than $200 from people identifying themselves as employees of the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps or Coast Guard, according to a search of the federal elections database at http://www.opensecrets.org" Target="_BLANK">http://www.opensecrets.org.

The database, a service of the non-partisan Center for Responsive Politics, does not include donors who have given under $200 - a group generally more generous to Obama than McCain.

Political scientists say donations are one measure of "fervor" for a candidate, as donors are considerably more likely to vote.

Regardless of who wins, Michael Lyons, a Utah State University political science professor, said that when it comes to Iraq, Obama and McCain are likely to walk similar paths.

"They both strike me as more pragmatists than ideologues," Lyons said. "While Obama and McCain have taken drastically different positions over the past five years, as president I'm not sure they would diverge that much."

Given increased stability in Iraq, the worsening situation in Afghanistan, the badly-stretched military and the nation's complex financial woes, Lyons said either man is likely to begin drawing down troop levels in Iraq nearly immediately after assuming office.

"We can't afford Iraq at the current expenditure levels anymore," Lyons said of a war that is costing an estimated $10 billion to $12 billion a month.

But if America is approaching its endgame in Iraq, Tamara Taylor of South Ogden wants to know she can trust the next president to make the right decisions, lest mistakes be made that result in U.S. forces having to return.

"I would hope that it would be more of a controlled exit, rather than one that looks like we're beating it out of there," said Taylor, who has six sons in the military. "We support John McCain especially because we believe he understands, better than anyone running to begin with and certainly better than Obama, the experience of war."

mlaplante@sltrib.com" Target="_BLANK">mlaplante@sltrib.com



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