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War still a top issue for Corps' neighbors

January 30, 2008|Phil Willon | Times Staff Writer

OCEANSIDE, CALIF. — The sour economy and ailing healthcare system worry Jaimee Duke, but for the wife of a Marine Corps helicopter pilot at Camp Pendleton, the heart of the presidential campaign comes down to this: Most of the Republicans want to keep U.S. troops in Iraq and all of the Democrats are talking withdrawal.

Duke has been a strong supporter of the military mission. She accepts the sacrifice and anxiety of having a loved one at war. But she now feels Americans have put their lives on the line long enough.

"I don't know how excited I am about the Republican candidates this time, and I voted for Bush," Duke, 32, said recently as she relaxed at a city park with her baby and 4-year-old. "I would actually like to see someone in the White House that's going to get us out of Iraq. . . . I would like to see us ask the Iraqis to take care of their own country."

The Iraq war no longer dominates political discussions the way it did a year ago. With the carnage overseas subsiding, the spotlight has turned to voter concerns about the troubled economy, the housing crisis, immigration and other issues closer to home.

But in Oceanside, a town of 130,000 bordered by the Pacific to the west and one of the nation's largest Marine Corps training bases to the north, the war is never far away. Pendleton is home to more than 35,000 active Marines and sailors, and their families and the base's civilian employees account for 25,000 more.

The movie lines outside the downtown Regal Cinemas are filled with signature crew cuts, and the rumble of mortar fire breaks the night silence in some well-trimmed neighborhoods.

On any given day at the base, there are family farewells for Marines being deployed. There are celebrations for troops who came home, and there are memorial services for those who did not. Camp Pendleton has borne more than its share of casualties in the war in Iraq.

So when Republican hopeful John McCain talked in New Hampshire about keeping U.S. troops in Iraq for 100 years, primarily as peacekeepers once hostilities cease, it rattled nerves. And when Illinois Sen. Barack Obama referred to Iraq as a "rash" war, or when Democratic candidates sparred over who is more opposed to the conflict, their words cut through the mind-numbing din of campaign rhetoric.

"Everybody here knows somebody who has died overseas or knows a family who had someone die," said Deputy Mayor Rocky Chavez, a retired Marine colonel and charter school principal. "We see their wives. We see guys walking down the street with prosthetics. We see it. It's real."

The bond between the Marines and this host city goes far beyond the plentiful military clothing stores and downtown barbershops; it permeates all aspects of Oceanside, especially the city's economy and politics. The civilian jobs on the base and government contractors it attracts are the primary sustenance of Oceanside's economy.

National security and a strong military are priorities for many of the active members of the service and the tens of thousands of veterans living in the area, and that has helped steer the city to the right. Republicans account for 42% of registered voters in town, compared with 31% for the Democrats, and President Bush won handily here in 2000 and 2004.

"I think Bush has done a good job. Now I'm worried a Democrat is going to win the election," said Sue Wallace, 31, whose husband is a Marine infantry officer.

Oceanside has grown beyond its image as a gritty blue-collar military town. Pricey condos are sprouting along the coast, and the inland suburbs are filling up with residences built around golf courses and specialty stores.

Not far behind Iraq in the minds of many, therefore, are the same concerns that worry the rest of Southern California, including dropping home prices and rising foreclosure rates. Voters fret about the escalating price of gas, mounting healthcare costs and how best to address illegal immigration.

John Daley, a lifelong Oceanside resident who owns the Cafe 101 diner on Coast Highway and is a real estate broker, said he hadn't made up his mind whom he'd support. But he's not worried.

"Once they get elected, they all realize that the job they have to do is different than they realized," he said. "I don't think we'll elect anybody who's going to kill us."

The city's deputy mayor isn't so sure. Chavez supports McCain, a popular choice among many area veterans. He says the Arizona senator is a proven fiscal conservative and, as a longtime legislator and a former prisoner of war in Vietnam, the most qualified to steer the U.S. mission in Iraq to a successful end.

Chavez also was won over by McCain's support for comprehensive immigration reform, including giving some illegal immigrants a path to citizenship. He acknowledges that is a view not shared by many of the Republicans he knows.

Most of the active-duty Marines interviewed for this article said they were strongly behind Bush and the mission in Iraq, but opinions were mixed about the next step.

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