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.
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.
"Active military as well as veterans are stronger for us today," he said. "The value, or attribute, of strong leader is more important to them than other voters. That's an attribute that we have an advantage over John Kerry on."
Veterans make up about 15 percent of Virginia's population, but in past elections about 25 percent of those casting ballots identified themselves in exit polls as former military. Many are concentrated in the Hampton Roads area, home to some of the nation's largest military installations.
"You throw a rock, you're bound to hit a retired military officer," University of Virginia professor Larry Sabato said of the region. "It's incredible."
But Sabato, who has followed politics in Virginia for decades, said veterans do not always vote as a group. In an article to be published in American Legion magazine, Sabato writes that neither Bush nor Kerry can count on snaring the veteran vote merely by appealing to their military status.
"For the most part, veterans don't see themselves solely as veterans," Sabato writes. "Their service status is one factor in their political make-up, but it usually does not outweigh other political cues, including ideology, race, and income level."
And even within the broad category of veterans issues, there is diversity. Some want politicians to have served in combat. Others care about the U.S. effort to normalize relations with Vietnam, a push that Kerry led. And still others are concerned about health and disability benefits for veterans.
At the Virginia Department of Veterans Affairs in Norfolk, some disabled veterans expressed anger with Bush because the federal government insists on giving them either a disability benefit or a retirement check but not both.
"When the president was elected, he spoke of helping the veterans and making sure they were taken care of, and it never happened," said Warren Frost, 50, who retired from the Navy after 30 years and is considered 40 percent disabled. "I've always said we need a president who's been in the military and knows what it was like."
Frost said he has a son serving in the Air Force in Iraq. He expressed the concern that Kerry campaign strategists believe will be common among veterans and others with a direct connection to the conflict.
"There should have been more negotiation," Frost said. "I don't see why troops should be in there."
James E. Collins, a service representative at the department, has to be officially neutral. But personally, he said, he plans to vote for Kerry and is trying to persuade his wife to do the same. He spent 30 years in the Navy and retired in 1982 as a chief warrant officer 4.
"We tend to like our own," Collins said, adding that he believes that Kerry will win broad support among veterans who live in the Norfolk and Virginia Beach area.
Collins said he believes Bush "stepped in it" in Iraq. And Collins was critical of Bush for his actions during Vietnam, when he joined the National Guard.
"If the crunch came, I'd back him 100 percent," Collins said, referring to the possibility of a terrorist attack under Bush. "I'm not anti-American. I'm anti-Bush. He's never stood up there and got shot at."
Still, Kerry officials said they are not counting on winning most of the veteran vote, just a larger share than previous Democrats.
At VFW Post 392, Gunnar Gudjonsson, a retired Marine major who served in Vietnam, was the only one willing to say that might happen. Some of his peers are angry about funding at veterans hospitals and disability benefits, he said.
"A lot of them are listening to [Kerry] promising to do more," Gudjonsson said. "You will see more veterans" vote for Kerry than had voted for Democrats.
But he quickly added that he is not going to be one of them.
"I'm a Vietnam vet, and I despise what he did after the war," the former Marine said of Kerry. "I just don't see in that man the kind of character we need in the president of the United States."