LAS VEGAS -- Michael Moody may be the past president of the local Republican Men's Club here, but these days he's feeling more affinity toward the "band of brothers" John F. Kerry trotted out for the Democrats' nominating convention in Boston last month.
Despite his GOP roots, Moody joined a Veterans for Kerry rally in July with about 75 other vets and their spouses. He explained that he has grown alarmed by the Bush administration's approach to Iraq and what Moody considers to be a hostile foreign policy in general. So he has decided to work to put fellow Vietnam veteran Kerry into the White House.
"I think Bush's policies have alienated us from our allies and energized our enemies," said Moody, who was an unsuccessful Republican candidate for governor here in 1982. "We have to elect John Kerry to show the world that Americans all aren't like Bush. ...I'm coming over to this side."
President Bush's Iraq policy is issue number one here in Nevada, one of about 18 crucial battleground states where both major candidates are focusing efforts this year. Most political pollsters and analysts view Iraq and the economy as the top two issues in the country. But the economy in Nevada has been relatively strong, making the Iraq issue even more prominent.
The state has posted strong economic figures in recent months, including a 4.1 percent unemployment rate in May -- the lowest in nearly four years and lower than the seasonally adjusted national jobless rate of 5.6 percent. Jobs have grown in the leisure and hospitality industry, professional and business services and construction while the population in Clark County, which includes Las Vegas, has more than tripled since 1986, to about 1.6 million today, according to estimates compiled by a group of local business boosters.
"I see Iraq as pretty high [among voter concerns] here now because the economic stuff doesn't really matter that much here," Moody said. "The Nevada economy has been pretty strong. I definitely think that Iraq and the issues around it that happen between now and the election are it."
Other than Iraq, perhaps the biggest issue here is a regional one: the Bush administration's plan to develop a nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain, 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas. The state's voters and most of its politicians in both major parties oppose the plan. Kerry opposes the plan, and Democrats have tied Iraq and Yucca Mountain together to make a single point-Bush can't be trusted.
The GOP also is using Iraq to illustrate the president's character: His willingness to buck international allies to protect America demonstrates his resolve and toughness, they argue. And they say it's a message that is resonating in this military-heavy state.
"When I talk to people, what comes across is that people know that the president has set a goal of what he's trying to do, and he's not wavering from it," said Henderson resident Paul Adams, a West Point graduate and chairman of Nevada Veterans for Bush-Cheney. "When they contrast that to Kerry, whose positions really aren't that different from the president's, they see a difference between the two."
According to a series of polls conducted by Zogby International for the Wall Street Journal, Bush and Kerry have been in a statistical dead heat here since late May, with independent candidate Ralph Nader rapidly increasing his standing to about 6 percent on July 12.
Bush pulled out a narrow victory here in 2000, winning by just fewer than 4 percentage points. A switch of only about 11,000 votes would have given Al Gore a victory. Bill Clinton won the state by narrow margins -- 2 percent and 1 percent in 1992 and 1996, respectively.
Nevada's current congressional members also reflect its swing-state tradition. In fact, until the addition of a third congressional district following the 2000 census, Nevada had two Democrats in congress, Sen. Harry M. Reid and Rep. Shelley Berkley, and two Republicans, Sen. John Ensign and Rep. Jim Gibbons. Republican Jon Porter was easily elected in 2002 to the newly created and evenly partisan Third District around Las Vegas. And the state's Republican governor, Kenny C. Guinn, is in his second term, giving the state an overall GOP tilt right now.
But Democrats are betting that the state's changing demographics will give them a shot in November. Nevada is one of the fastest growing states, complicating efforts to make predictions. For instance, Nevada has one of the nation's fastest-growing Hispanic populations, a group that tends to vote overwhelmingly for Democrats. Latinos now make up about 20 percent of Nevada's population, compared to around 12.5 percent nationally, according to the 2000 Census.
But there is growth in another demographic that both the Bush and Kerry campaigns are targeting -- the veterans who are drawn to the state for the warm weather, relatively low taxes and low cost of living.
Veterans account for 16 percent of the state's adult population. Since 1990, Nevada's veteran population has increased by 30.8 percent -- the highest increase of any state-even as the national percentage decreased by almost 4 percent. This crucial demographic brings military issues such as the war on terror, Operation Iraqi Freedom and combat pay to the forefront in this battleground state.
Prior to traveling to the Democratic convention in Boston last month, former Georgia senator Max Cleland, a veteran who lost three limbs in Vietnam, appeared before a room full of fellow veterans, railing on Bush and the GOP.
His message was a simple one: The Bush administration has imperiled America's security by waging an irresponsible, poorly managed war with Iraq, a country that was not an imminent threat to the United States. More than 800 Americans have died, and thousands more have been injured, while the bill is $200 billion and counting.
Cleland blames the administration's blunders on hawkish idealism born of a failure of the president and many of his top advisers to serve in combat during Vietnam.
"I keep hearing these Republicans trying to dismiss the three injuries Kerry got in Vietnam," Cleland said. "You know, I didn't see Ann Coulter out there. I didn't see Rush Limbaugh out there. I didn't see Dick Cheney, who got five deferments out there. ...They turn their slime machine on John Kerry. They did it to John McCain. They did it to me. Don't let them do it to John Kerry."
Cleland had the crowd's rapt attention as he told a story about how Kerry flouted procedure to chase after a Viet Cong soldier who had aimed a rocket-propelled gun at Kerry's boat.
Kerry "runs into the woods after the guy and killed him," Cleland said of the incident that earned Kerry one of his medals. "So if you think John Kerry won't go after the terrorists, you're wrong."
Despite Kerry's early vote authorizing Bush to use force in Iraq, the bottom line with Kerry supporters is that this is Bush's war, a war of choice and not one in which a President Kerry would have engaged.
"I truly believe that even though our troops have been successful, this administration has been a failure," said John Hunt, co-chairman of Nevada Veterans for Kerry. Hunt is an Air Force veteran, and his stepson, William Harris, 22, is an Army private based at Fort Bragg, N.C., who just returned from combat in Iraq.
Hunt, who ran unsuccessfully as a Democrat for state attorney general a few years ago, helped organize the event at the Cambridge Recreation Center, a few miles from the fabled Las Vegas Strip. He said he's been calling veterans all over Clark County and finding what he describes as widespread disenchantment with the president.
There are, of course, people who believe just as strongly that the president made the right call on Iraq. Even many of those who are troubled by his handling of it, say he shouldn't be criticized now that the United States is at war.
Among Bush's supporters is Ralph Ingle, a 75-year-old retired Army sergeant who served in Korea and Vietnam. A couple months ago, he received a call from state Sen. Terry Care, himself a former Veteran volunteering for Kerry in Nevada. Care wanted to know if Ingle would join Veterans for Kerry and work to get him elected.
"He said, 'No thanks,'" Care said.
Ingle, a self-described independent who voted for Bush in 2000, said that his support for the war has grown over the last year. " I think it was sort of a bad deal going in there," he said. "But once we're in there, I'm with the troops and the president all the way. When the commander in chief sends us, you go. Once we're in there, we don't go running scared. Otherwise these people, whether it's the old Commies or these present-day terrorists, if we go running from them, we'll be running forever."
Ingle, who lives near Nellis Air Force Base in suburban Clark County, said he hasn't made up his mind on who he'll vote for this time, but he's leaning toward Bush again.
But not even Bush's supporters here believe the war will help him win Nevada. At best, they say, it'll be a wash.
When Vice President Cheney visited the state last month to speak at a fundraiser in Henderson, he focused primarily on what he described as a reviving economy. He made no direct mention of Iraq.
"As all of us know, these past three-and-a-half years have brought many challenges to America, and our economy has been through a lot," Cheney said. "We have faced recession, terrorist attack and the uncertainties that exist in a time of war."
Republican political consultant Sid Rogich predicted Bush would win the state.
"I have not seen any evidence that people are any more dissatisfied in Nevada than any other place" with the Iraq situation, said Rogich, one of Bush's so-called "Rangers" who has helped the campaign raise at least $200,000. "The war is essentially a split issue here like in any other state."
Adams, the chairman of Bush's state veterans organization, believes the war will help Bush. What voters are looking for in today's uncertain, tense times, he says, is a leader who is unwavering and unshakable in his resolve, someone who won't be intimidated.
"When we talk to people in the discussions they recognize that we're in war and these people are trying to destroy our way of life," Adams said. "You know, terrorism, it's always in the back of people's minds here. Las Vegas always comes up on the radar screen as a potential target," he said. "Many people look at the war as something that is being fought to keep that from happening here locally."
He said his group has not sought to make an issue of Kerry's service and whether he deserves the medals he received, but he insisted many veterans say they won't vote for Kerry because he criticized the war when he returned from Vietnam.
Washingtonpost.com videographer John Poole and producer Amy Tennery contributed to this report.