RICHMOND, Sept. 20 -- Sen. John W. Warner (R-Va.) and about 50 veterans rallied at the Virginia War Memorial here Monday to highlight the support for President Bush among the state's current and former members of the military.
Warner, a veteran and chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, praised Bush's leadership on behalf of the military and said, "The president has done his job since the first day he took office on behalf of veterans."
That comment drew applause from the small crowd assembled in front of the memorial. But the question of whether veterans across the state agree with Warner has taken on a broader significance in this year's presidential contest.
Sen. John F. Kerry (Mass.), the Democratic nominee, has made his service in Vietnam a centerpiece of his campaign, and his strategists in Virginia say they are counting on support among veterans. Kerry has spent about $2 million in Virginia, although his campaign recently pulled its television advertising out of the state, which has not gone for a Democrat in 40 years.
The veterans vote is significant in Virginia, which is home to the Pentagon and some of the largest military bases in the country. In past elections, exit polls have found that one of four Virginia voters was a veteran.
Bush campaign officials say they believe there has been a surge in support for the president among Virginia's active-duty military personnel and veterans since the Republican convention and the television advertisements by Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, which questioned Kerry's service record in Vietnam.
That sentiment was evident in the crowd at the rally. Several held signs proclaiming, "Kerry out after 4 months!" and "Vietnam Veterans against Kerry."
John G. McKay Jr., 76, a Marine during World War II, said he is supporting Bush mainly because of his doubts about Kerry.
"If there was someone else running against Bush," he said, he might vote for that person. "There have been things I've not been 100 percent about Bush. But he stands for some Christian values that I support. . . . I don't find [Kerry] credible."
Jim Richardson, 71, an Army veteran of World War II, said he supports Bush because of his decision to go to war in Iraq and because of his doubts about Kerry's ability to direct the nation's battle with terrorists.
"Kerry is just a wishy-washy guy," Richardson said. "He's not a leader."
That theme was echoed by Rep. J. Randy Forbes (R-Va.), who spoke to the crowd about a recent trip he took to Normandy on the 60th anniversary of the Allied invasion during World War II. Forbes used the example to mock Kerry as a frequent flip-flopper and an indecisive leader.
"Imagine if somebody said, 'Let's go in on Omaha Beach,' " he said. " 'Oh, no. Let's not. Yes. Let's go in. Maybe not.' That's not someone we need as commander in chief."
Not everyone in the crowd was a Bush supporter. Several veterans who support Kerry put on Bush-Cheney '04 stickers and listened as Warner and several other Republican politicians spoke. After the rally, they debated several pro-Bush veterans.
Don Jacobson, 80, said one of his sons was killed in Vietnam and another took his own life after returning from that war. Jacobson, a veteran, said he has trouble voting for Bush because of allegations that the president used family connections to avoid being sent to fight in Vietnam.
"While he was apparently dodging the draft, we lost two sons in that war," Jacobson said. Regarding the war in Iraq, he said: "I'm sure that before this is over, we'll be going into the draft again. That concerns me."
Rick O'Dell, the state veterans coordinator for Kerry's campaign, called the Swift Boat ads "a temporary setback" and vowed that Kerry would get many more votes from veterans than Democratic candidates have in the past.
O'Dell, a Vietnam veteran, said Kerry has begun to hammer home a simple message that will resonate with voters in Virginia and across the nation: that Kerry served in the military while Bush did not.
"They can't support a presidential candidate who failed to answer the call of service in Vietnam," he predicted.