President Obama is making a targeted effort to court the votes of military veterans and their families, believing the constituency is in play for Novemberand could make a difference in key battleground states.
The Obama campaign today kicked off a grassroots organizing effort - dubbed "Veterans and Military Families for Obama" - led by retired Naval officer and Iraq war veteran Rob Diamond.
"It's no secret to anyone where our military bases are in this country and where our veterans and military communities are located," Diamond said of the strategy on a conference call with reporters. "And the goal of our program is to mobilize and energize and activate those folks where they live.
"Obviously, a state like Virginia is a critically important state with a large military presence, and that's where our veterans and military families live, states like North Carolina and a state like Florida," he said.
Obama lost the veterans' vote in 2008 to John McCain (himself a veteran), 55 to 45 percent. But campaign officials now believe that changing demographics in the country and the military, coupled with Obama's record on veterans issues, could give him an edge.
"We're going to break down that mythology about the military voting history and veteran voting history," Diamond said.
The campaign is highlighting Obama's support for the post-9/11 GI Bill, tax credits for businesses that hire veterans, public-private partnerships to boost veteran employment, and increased funding for the Department of Veterans Affairs, as well as foreign policy achievements like ending the war in Iraq and killing Osama bin laden.
A new Reuters/Ipsos poll released this week shows Obama leading Mitt Romney among veterans, 44 to 37 percent.
Central to the pitch to veteran voters is First Lady Michelle Obama, who appears with the president in a web video announcing the political outreach effort. She has spent the past few months traveling the country to mark the one-year anniversary of her Joining Forces initiative, which promotes support for veterans and their families.
The White House and Obama campaign have insisted her efforts have had no ties to politics. "Obviously the first lady's Joining Forces effort is part of her initiatives at the White House and not linked to the campaign," campaign spokesman Ben LaBolt said today.
But the president himself suggested that his wife's advocacy is a part of his pitch for a second term.
"There's nothing I take more seriously than my responsibility to those who sacrifice their own safety to defend ours," Obama says in the video, "that's why Michelle and I have made supporting veterans and military families a top priority from the start."
The president's backers say "tens of thousands" of veterans have already enlisted with the Obama campaign group.
"They're stepping up because they know voters will face a clear choice in November," said Delaware Attorney General, Army veteran and son of the vice president Beau Biden. "Veterans know the vision and leadership we need in a commander in chief and they know the stakes and the consequences of sitting on the sidelines and would wake up on the morning after election day would be too late."
The campaign has been sharply critical of Romney on veterans issues, claiming that his support of the House Republican budget would mean veterans programs would be cut by $11 billion a year. They also say he would reduce veterans health care benefits by privatizing the system, pointing to the governor's November 2011 suggestion that benefits could be delivered as vouchers.
Romney allies have pointed to his record as governor of Massachusetts as evidence that he would be a staunch advocate for veterans and their families. They also say his economic policies would do more to boost economic status of veterans overall.
Veterans "are not being well served today because of some of the policies in place under the Obama administration," said former Secretary of Veterans Affairs Anthony Principi, who served in the Bush administration and is a Romney supporter.
"Today, we see a significantly higher unemployment rate amongst those young men and women who are coming home and can't find meaningful jobs. And it impacts their well being; it impacts their mental health which is another area that they are not being well served," he said.
The unemployment rate for veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan was 9.2 percent in April, according to the Labor Department. Among all veterans, the jobless rate was 7.1 percent.
The national unemployment rate was 8.1 percent during the same period, the government reported.