BOSTON – Former Maryland House Delegate C. Richard “Dick” D’Amato is at the Democratic National Convention this week trying to figure out how to sway veterans supporting President Bush over to John Kerry, the Democrats’ war-hero candidate.
Kerry strategists hope they can turn around what traditionally has been a GOP advantage with veterans by emphasizing Kerry’s record as a Purple Heart-decorated Vietnam War veteran. In 2000, for example, male veterans supported Republican George Bush over Democrat Al Gore 46 percent to 39 percent, according to the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press.
But so far, the Massachusetts senator’s military record seems to have done little to win over veterans. The Pew poll released Friday found that men who have served in the armed forces favor Bush over Kerry 49 percent to 40 percent.
D’Amato, head of Maryland’s Veterans for Kerry and a member of the convention’s credentials committee, blamed the gap on a general lack of attention to the candidates this soon before the election. “It should be an easy sell” once veterans learn about the difference between the two candidates’ military records, he said.
D’Amato said he finds more support for Kerry among Vietnam veterans than those of other wars, but the Maryland group includes activists who served in wars from World War II through the first Gulf War. It also has special coordinators reaching out to World War II veterans, black veterans and former servicewomen.
Taking its cues from the national campaign, D’Amato said the Maryland group plans to stay positive and promote Kerry’s record as a serviceman and as a senator. “He has lots to be proud of. We want to emphasize that,” he said.
But D’Amato said Democratic strategists will draw a sharp distinction between the two candidates’ military records. During Vietnam, Bush served in the Texas Air National Guard and his tour of duty has come under criticism. Kerry did two tours of duty in Vietnam with the Navy, rising to the rank of lieutenant and earning a Silver Star, a Bronze Star, three Purple Hearts and the National Defense Service Medal.
D’Amato, a retired U.S. Navy reserve captain whose tenure in Vietnam overlapped with Kerry’s, said his group plans to put together a packet of materials for veterans who support Kerry, then let them decide how they want to participate in the campaign. Possible state activities include marching in parades, writing letters to the editor and speaking to other veterans’ groups on behalf of Kerry, he said.
National strategists meeting Wednesday with delegates who are veterans urged them to call other veterans and display their medals when promoting Kerry on television.
Peter Feaver, a Duke University professor who studies military and veterans issues, said the symbolic role of veterans for Kerry is even more important than the electoral.
“This is the most-macho Democratic Convention ever,” and having all these veterans around makes Kerry look strong and decisive on defense, he said. It also makes him more sympathetic to “Wal-Mart America,” who would otherwise not find much to identify with in Kerry’s privileged upbringing, Feaver said.
An estimated 500 veterans are delegates at this year’s Democratic National Convention. The party hosted a veteran’s caucus Monday featuring retired Army Gen. Wesley K. Clark, disabled Vietnam veteran and former Sen. Max Cleland of Georgia, political consultant and former Marine James Carville and Kerry’s former Navy crewmates in Vietnam.
Republican strategists dismissed the Democrats’ push for veterans’ votes.
Christine Iverson, a spokeswoman for the Republican National Committee, cited pay and benefit increases for the military under the Bush administration and what she characterized as anti-defense Senate votes by Kerry and running mate John Edwards of North Carolina as reasons veterans will stick with the GOP.
In Maryland, D’Amato said the toughest sell may be in his hometown of Annapolis. At the Naval Academy, where he has taught, he has encountered a tilt toward President Bush.
“There’s a view that the Navy is a Republican organization,” said D’Amato, who now serves as chairman of the congressionally mandated U.S.-China Economic Review Commission.