MELISSA BLOCK, host: Along with the president's speech to the American Legion, this week, Rick Perry and Mitt Romney also spoke to veterans. The two leaders in the large field of Republican presidential hopefuls traveled to San Antonio, Texas, for the national convention of the Veterans of Foreign Wars. As NPR's John Burnett reports, Perry and Romney sidestepped attacks on each other, saving their vitriol for President Obama.

JOHN BURNETT: The friendly group of veterans received both men warmly. Mitt Romney and Rick Perry used the hawkish crowd of former soldiers, airmen, sailors and Marines to tear in to President Obama's performance as commander in chief. Romney spoke this morning at the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center.

MITT ROMNEY REPUBLICAN PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Our involvement in Libya was marked by inadequate clarity of purpose before we began the mission, and then mission muddle during the operation and ongoing confusion as to our role in the future.

BURNETT: Romney did not serve in the military. Both in his 2008 presidential run and in his current campaign, Romney has pumped up his credentials as a business executive. As such, the war he would wage, he told the crowd, was against the defense bureaucracy.

CANDIDATE: As a conservative businessman who spent most of his life in the private sector, I look at that kind of inefficiency and bloat and I say: Let me at it.

BURNETT: In contrast to Mitt Romney, Rick Perry did serve in the military. In his speech yesterday to the veterans group, he made sure they knew it.

Governor RICK PERRY: As a former Air Force pilot, I had the great privilege to fly tact airlifters around the globe from 1972 to 1977. I know the credo of survivors of war, that only the heroes are the ones who never make it home. But in my eyes, you all are heroes - every one of you.

BURNETT: Perry added that he never flew combat missions. He flew C-130s in the United States, the Middle East and Europe and left the Air Force with the rank of captain to return to Texas and farm cotton. The Texas governor knows he has a steep learning curve on world affairs and national security. The magazine National Review reported that Douglas Feith, undersecretary of defense for policy in the George W. Bush administration, traveled to Austin last month to brief Perry.

Former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld confirmed to Politico that he helped organize Perry's foreign policy and defense tutorial. Governor Perry has, in the past, been comfortable criticizing the president for not doing more to protect the Texas-Mexico border. In his appearance here yesterday, he took on Barack Obama for his handling of multinational forces, but he did not specify which conflict.

PERRY: We cannot concede the moral authority of our nation to multilateral debating societies. And when our interests are threatened, American soldiers should be led by American commanders.

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE AND CHEERING)

BURNETT: With Perry as the most recent arrival to the race, the VFW convention was an early opportunity for people to see the two leading GOP candidates back to back. Tom Ferguson is an former Marine from Colonial Heights, Virginia.

TOM FERGUSON: I like the governor yesterday much better, and I don't understand all of Mitt's policies or his plans or anything, but I feel more in tune with the governor from Texas.

BURNETT: Why is that?

FERGUSON: I don't know. He just - he seems more personable than Mitt does. Mitt seems like a career politician, as you would say.

BURNETT: Which is an interesting observation, since Rick Perry has held elected office for nearly 27 years and has been governor since the end of the Clinton administration. Mitt Romney was governor of Massachusetts for just four years.

Perry and Romney and other candidates will have the chance to face off next Wednesday at the next Republican debate at the Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California. John Burnett, NPR News, San Antonio.

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