LAS VEGAS — No one was surprised when both presidential candidates appealed for votes Saturday at the annual convention of the nation's largest organization of disabled military veterans.
But Fred Bristol, who has attended the Disabled American Veterans convention for the last 55 years, marveled at his fellow veterans' reaction to Sens. Barack Obama, who sent a video, and John McCain, who addressed the group in person.
"I think there's an unusual split in the group we haven't seen in the past," said Bristol, 81, of Sarasota, Fla. "I'm hearing that from a lot of friends."
McCain has built his political career on his Navy service, including 5 1/2 years as a POW in Vietnam, and he remains immensely popular with many veterans groups. But the Arizona Republican's appearance here suggested limits to that appeal.
The 1.4-million-member group said that in 2006, he voted for only one of the five spending bills the group considered most important -- 20%.
"It's a pretty low score," said David Autry, spokesman for the congressionally chartered nonprofit group. The group rated Obama (D-Ill.) at 80%.
The bill McCain supported, which passed the Senate unanimously, increased funding for veterans' health benefits and got rid of enrollment fees and higher pharmacy co-payments.
The four he opposed would have increased funding for veterans' services and benefits. In each case, aides said, he objected to earmarks: amendments that members often attach for pet projects in their home districts, including those involving the Veterans Affairs Department. Opposition to earmarks is a signature issue for McCain.
McCain used his remarks here Saturday to try to reassure the 4,000 or so people at the convention.
"Exactly because funding VA programs commands bipartisan support, some in the Congress like to attach unrelated pork barrel appropriations and earmarks to VA bills," he said. "The result is to mix vital national priorities with wasteful and often worthless political pork."
McCain also discussed his plan to issue sick or disabled vets a special access card so they could use private healthcare providers outside the VA system. Some veterans and the Obama campaign oppose the plan.
"Let me make very clear: This card is not intended to either replace the VA or privatize veterans' healthcare, as some have wrongly charged," he said.
The director of Illinois' Veterans Affairs Department, L. Tammy Duckworth, countered on behalf of the Obama campaign that McCain's plan would reduce veterans' benefits. An Army helicopter pilot who lost both legs in Iraq, she is the national group's Outstanding Disabled Veteran of the Year for 2008.McCain's proposal, she said, would push disabled vets "out into the local economy in hope that someone can take care of their combat wounds. It's essentially privatization, something I cannot support."
Obama pledged in his remarks, recorded before he left for a week's vacation in Hawaii, that he would fully fund VA healthcare, and add more veterans centers, particularly in rural areas. "We'll have a simple principle for veterans sleeping on our streets: zero tolerance," he said.
On the subject of Iraq, McCain and Obama differed sharply on their plans for ending the unpopular war, or least on how to describe their differences.
McCain said the buildup of U.S. troops last year "has succeeded" and victory "is finally in sight." But he warned that it "could still be squandered by hasty withdrawal and arbitrary timelines," a reference to Obama's pledge, if elected, to withdraw most troops within 16 months of taking office.
Obama "would choose the path of retreat and failure for America over the path of success and victory," McCain said.
Both the White House and Iraq's government have recently signaled support for a staged withdrawal. McCain has said that he too would begin to bring troops home if conditions in Iraq continued to improve.
Obama's aides argue that McCain is trying to give himself political wiggle room to pull troops out while simultaneously accusing his opponent of accepting defeat by advocating withdrawal. They say McCain's tactical and political shift proves that Obama was right all along.
It's difficult to gauge whether McCain's military service and pedigree -- he is the son and grandson of Navy admirals -- gives him a campaign advantage with veterans.
President Clinton, who did not join the military, beat two World War II veterans to win his two terms in the White House: President George H.W. Bush in 1992 and former Sen. Bob Dole in 1996. And in 2004, Sen, John F. Kerry, a Vietnam veteran, lost to President Bush, who served in the Texas National Guard.
Many vets here said they do not consider the Iraq war or McCain's military service to be key campaign issues. Their chief concerns are the ailing economy and high gas prices.
"I work three jobs to make ends meet," said Jeff Graves, 45, an Army veteran from Falmouth, Ky. "I need to know who's going to help with that."