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CAMPAIGN '08: RACE FOR THE WHITE HOUSE

Obama's wife scouts for military families' vote

It's a bloc that usually goes Republican. In swing states like North Carolina, it could prove crucial.

October 26, 2008|Dahleen Glanton | Glanton writes for the Chicago Tribune.

JACKSONVILLE, N.C. — As a major component of his presidential bid, Democratic nominee Barack Obama has deployed his wife on a mission to win over military families, many of them traditional Republicans. She has targeted the group with whom she hopes to forge an alliance -- wives of servicemen.

In a series of round-table discussions and rallies in North Carolina, Virginia, Florida and New Mexico -- all battleground states -- Michelle Obama has discussed how she, like military spouses, juggles work and family. On the campaign trail she describes herself in simple terms -- a mother, a lawyer and a wife who grew up in a blue-collar family in working-class Chicago. (Educated at Harvard, she earned more than $300,000 in 2005 as a hospital executive.)

Wives vent to her about the difficulty of raising children while their husbands are away. They share stories about the loneliness, financial challenges and fears that come with being a military spouse.

"We all have some fundamental things in common," Michelle Obama recently told a crowd of veterans and relatives of service members from Camp Lejeune, N.C., from which nearly 60,000 Marines are deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan. "We share a vision of a system that does more to support military families, both when your loved ones are deployed and long after they return.

"We've all been touched by this economic crisis that our nation is facing. . . . You feel it when you pay for groceries . . . and when you fill up your tank," she said.

But the military is not a voting bloc that John McCain, the Republican nominee, will give up without a fight. He has enlisted a former Navy buddy and fellow prisoner of war in Vietnam to appeal directly to veterans. McCain's wife, Cindy, also has spoken to military groups.

Tamera Steele, 40, said she had carefully studied the positions of both presidential candidates before deciding to support Barack Obama. Michelle Obama's visit to Jacksonville helped seal the deal for her.

The Bush administration "has pulled so much money from education to defend this war. They always talk about 'No Child Left Behind,' but military children are slipping through the cracks," said Steele, a mother of four and a member of the Camp Lejeune School Board.

Steele said she and her husband -- Gunnery Sgt. Terrance Steele, a 20-year veteran who returned this month from Iraq -- sometimes disagree on politics.

But this time, she said, they are on the same page.

With nearly 60% of active-duty military members between the ages of 18 and 29, the Obama campaign has pounced on an opportunity to attract young voters, many of them married with families.

In swing states such as North Carolina, where Obama has a narrow lead in the polls, active and retired military voters could be the determining factor, according to the campaign.

"People in these [military communities] don't often come in contact with a candidate," said Obama spokeswoman Susan Lagana. "They are as much concerned about the economy and tax cuts for the middle class as the GI Bill and bringing [the Department of Veterans Affairs] into the 21st century."

At the end of the Vietnam War, the military -- particularly its higher ranks -- grew increasingly Republican. But that trend might be reversing. A nonscientific poll of active-duty service members in 2006 by the Military Times found that 46% identified themselves as Republicans, compared with 60% in 2004.

"The sense in the military community is that there's a great deal of disappointment in the Bush administration policies," said Richard Kohn, a military scholar at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

"There is a good deal more neutrality and more of a willingness to vote Democratic."

Military voters in 2004 favored President Bush over Democratic challenger John F. Kerry, 57% to 41%. A poll released this month by the Military Times showed active-duty service members supporting McCain over Obama, 68% to 23%. However, the Military Times pointed out that the respondents were subscribers who were older, held more senior ranks and were less ethnically diverse than the military as a whole.

"When [Michelle Obama] is talking to military families, what she is saying she knows nothing about," said retired Lt. Col. Orson Swindle, who handles veteran outreach for McCain. "She's just making promises. Mr. Obama is incredible with words, and she's pretty good herself. But performance and walking the walk is what people in the military want."

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