VIRGINIA BEACH -- The smoky bar at the Gen. MacArthur Memorial VFW Post 392 is the kind of place Sen. John F. Kerry is counting on for what his presidential campaign strategists predict will be an upset in Virginia on Election Day.
Aging veterans, many of whom, like Kerry, served in Vietnam, light up with American-flag lighters and down domestic beer. They are farmers and computer technicians and karaoke singers, but most say they define themselves by their years as master chiefs or majors or petty officers.
David Howard, left, Andy Love and "Wild Bill" Redburn stop by VFW Post 392 several times a week for drinks and conversation that often turns to politics.
(Jay Paul For The Washington Post)
Kerry, too, harks back more than 30 years in many campaign ads and speeches. But if the Massachusetts Democrat is hoping that his military kinship with the post's 1,549 veterans will earn their votes, the men sitting around the bar one night last week said, he is the one in for a surprise.
"He wants to cash in and play on his credentials as a war hero," said David Howard, 53, who spent four years in Vietnam with the Army. "But when he came back, the very first thing he did was he co-founded the [Vietnam] Veterans Against the War. If you went and served and then you came back and you were totally against the war, okay, I can buy that. But today, you want to wrap yourself in the flag. You want to be Senator Kerry reporting for duty. I don't think you can have it both ways."
The men here don't like war protesters, and the men's room offers proof: Pictures of Vietnam War protester Jane Fonda are plastered in each urinal.
In an extended conversation with about a dozen veterans around the bar, all said they will vote for President Bush, and many cited Kerry's actions when he came home from the war. After returning from Vietnam with three Purple Hearts, Kerry led antiwar protests and testified forcefully at a Senate hearing that the war was wrong.
Few at the Veterans of Foreign Wars post said they thought that record would get Kerry many votes among their peers in this heavily military and Republican area.
"Kerry did go there," said John Berrenger, 59, a former senior chief in the Navy, referring to Kerry's service in the Navy during the Vietnam War. "Bush didn't. But when he came back, he threw his medals away and became antiwar."
Kerry contends that he did not throw away his medals. But Berrenger said there's no question he will vote to reelect Bush.
Berrenger said he's not happy with Bush's prosecution of the war in Iraq. "He got us in there the wrong way," he said. But "as for the rest of it -- the tax cuts -- I'm all for it."
Kerry strategists have said they believe the Democrat can win Virginia's 13 electoral votes this year, despite the Republican Party's recent lock on presidential elections here. They said that Kerry can score big in Northern Virginia and that his economic message will play well in poor areas where jobs have been sent overseas.
And they said Kerry's profile as a Vietnam veteran and his work as a senator on behalf of veterans will appeal to many of the state's 750,000 or so residents who were once in the military.
"John Kerry is himself a veteran, and he has shown that he very much wants to continue that association," said Tad Devine, a senior strategist for Kerry. During the primaries, he said, "the campaign targeted 10,000 veterans in Iowa. They were very receptive to his message."
Bush campaign officials said they are not worried. Matthew Dowd, their chief strategist, said he believes Bush is doing better among veterans this election season than he did among that group in 2000.