WASHINGTON - When the Bush campaign asked James McKinnon to co-chair its veterans steering committee in New Hampshire - a job he held in 2000 - the 56-year-old Vietnam veteran respectfully, but firmly, said no.
"I basically told them I was disappointed in his support of veterans," said McKinnon, who served two tours in Vietnam with the Coast Guard. "He's killing the active-duty military. ... Look at the reserves call-ups for Iraq, the hardships. The National Guard - the state militia - is being used improperly. I took the president at his word on Iraq, and now you can't find a single report to back up or substantiate weapons of mass destruction."
President Bush is seeking re-election as a "war president" whose decisive leadership steered the military to victories in Afghanistan and Iraq. But as guerrilla warfare drags on in both countries, casualties mount and the Army is stretched ever thinner, many voters in or affiliated with the military are no longer saluting the commander in chief.
The failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq or evidence that Saddam Hussein was in league with al-Qaida, lengthy deployments of active-duty soldiers and reservists and proposed cuts in veterans' benefits and perks to military families are threatening to erode Bush's once-strong support among military voters.
In the 2000 presidential election, absentee military ballots from overseas helped deliver the narrow margin of victory that sent Bush into the White House. So even a small defection of current and retired military people and their dependents could spell trouble for Bush in 2004.
"I think President Bush has an electoral edge despite the fact that Senator (John) Kerry has a better military service record," said Loren Thompson, the chief operating officer of the Lexington Institute, a conservative Washington think tank. "That said, the prolonged tours of duty, the unexpected intensity (of the war) and the way reservists are being deployed are working against the president. There is a lot of resentment in the ranks about the level of commitment demanded of the reserves, particularly among the families."
A bipartisan "Battleground" poll of likely voters conducted in September found that Bush's approval rating among relatives of military personnel was only 36 percent. Family members upset by Bush's policy on Iraq are venting through Web sites and public protests.
Military Families Speak Out, an antiwar group of relatives of deployed troops, plans to observe the Iraq war's first anniversary next week with processions outside Dover Air Base in Delaware, where the bodies of dead soldiers are returned, and at Walter Reed Army Hospital in Washington, where wounded soldiers are treated.
"I voted for Bush in 2000, and I'm not going to vote for him again," said Jean Prewitt, a group member from Birmingham, Ala. Her 24-year-old son, Kelley, was in the Army's 3rd Infantry Division when he was killed on April 6 just south of Baghdad. "I just feel deceived. He just kept screaming, screaming, weapons of mass destruction, weapons of mass destruction, we've got to get in there. We got in there and now there aren't any."
Democrats sense an opportunity to chip away at what's been a mostly Republican base since the United States turned to an all-volunteer military in 1973. Kerry, the Democratic presidential candidate from Massachusetts and a decorated Vietnam veteran, touts his military record on the campaign trail.
"There are several battleground states with significant veterans and military populations - Arkansas, Tennessee, Florida, Pennsylvania," said Josh Earnest, a Democratic National Committee spokesman. "In the last election, he (Bush) won their support. Clearly, the military vote could prove to be the difference."
But the military vote isn't monolithic.
Thompson said it's divided among 26.4 million veterans, 1.4 million active-duty troops and officers, 1.3 million reservists and millions of voting-age spouses and children of armed service members.
"With the introduction of the volunteer force, the military has tended to skew Republican, though it's less pronounced in the enlisted ranks," Thompson said. "Veterans, by and large, are going to be supportive of Bush. Dependents are probably going to be disturbed with the president because of the deployments to Afghanistan and Iraq. Reservists will probably not be that fairly disposed of the president at best. This could add up to a wash for the president."
Bush campaign officials say they expect military voters to return to the fold because the president has delivered on his 2000 campaign promise that "help is on the way" for underfunded, underpaid armed forces.
In his 2005 budget, Bush proposed 3.5 percent pay increases for armed service members, more than double the 1.5 percent increase for federal workers. Since Bush assumed office, the Pentagon has upgraded about 10 percent of its military housing and expects to modernize 76,000 more homes this year.
"I think that the military voters and the families have been asked to make tremendous sacrifice, but they've also been provided with tremendous support from this president," said Ken Mehlman, Bush's campaign manager.
But improved living conditions and more money might not be enough to blunt discontent in the military community over Pentagon cost-saving proposals that would close some commissaries and schools on bases.
Bush also alienated veterans organizations when he proposed to increase Veterans Administration health-care spending in his 2005 budget by only 4 percent, half of which would be generated by new fees and higher drug co-payments.
"It is further (proof) that veterans are no longer a priority with this administration," Edward S. Banas, the commander in chief of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, said last month.
Peter Feaver, a Duke University political scientist who studies military issues, said Bush "has a bigger problem with the military in 2004 than in 2000." Bush appealed to a military community that never embraced President Clinton because of his support of gays in the military and cuts in the Pentagon budget.
"Does Bush have a problem? Yes and no," Feaver said. "In 2000, everything was breaking Bush's way. In 2004, there are some cross-cutting issues that were free issues for him in 2000, like military benefits."
McKinnon, who rejected working again for the Bush campaign, worked for retired Army Gen. Wesley Clark's failed Democratic presidential campaign. McKinnon says he won't work for or support Kerry because of his opposition to the Vietnam War and for opposing a constitutional amendment that would ban the desecration of the American flag.
Like McKinnon, Jean Prewitt, 53, said she's hard-pressed to vote in November.
"I probably won't vote," she said. "I can't vote for Bush right now and I can't vote for Kerry. I just don't like him."
© 2004 Knight-Ridder