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It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.
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And I'm Renee Montagne. President Obama outlined several themes at his commencement address yesterday at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs. Mr. Obama told the graduating cadets that after 10 years of being, quote, under the dark cloud of war, the U.S. today is stronger, safer and more respected in the world.
Long before that speech, the Obama campaign was focusing on veterans, active military and their families. From Jacksonville, Florida, NPR's Greg Allen has that story.
GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: Historically, the veteran and military vote has gone Republican. In 2008, for example, while losing the presidency, John McCain - a war hero - won 55 percent of this vote. This year, the Obama campaign thinks it can close the gap. For one thing, neither candidate is a veteran. And the campaign is hoping to capitalize on a generational change in the military. Four years ago, although he lost the veteran vote overall, President Obama won among vets under age 60.
Yesterday, the Obama campaign rolled out a new ad aimed squarely at veterans and military families.
(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL ADVERTISEMENT)
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: The sacrifices that our troops have made have been incredible. It's because of what they've done that we've been able to go after al-Qaida and kill bin Laden. And when they come home, we have a sacred trust to make sure we are doing everything we can to heal all of their wounds.
ALLEN: Even before the reelection campaign, the White House was focused on veterans. President Obama supported increased funding for the VA, a revamped GI Bill and a job training program for returning vets. First lady Michelle Obama began a program of her own to help military families.
As part of that, last month she visited the Naval Air Station in Jacksonville, where she spoke to a group of young women from military families.
(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)
MICHELLE OBAMA: When we talk about how our men and women in uniform sacrifice so much and serve this country so bravely, we're not just talking about your parents. We are not. We are talking about all of you.
ALLEN: While polls suggest the President and Mrs. Obama's message is resonating with military families - including wives and children - the campaign still has a tough sale to make with many veterans. And in Florida, they're an important group. There are more than 1.6 million of them. Many live in the Jacksonville area, which is also home to two Navy installations.
(SOUNDBITE OF CROWD CHATTER)
ALLEN: American Legion Post 137 is just a few miles from Jacksonville's Naval Air Station. Like many veterans I spoke to there, Tony Romano is skeptical of Obama's leadership and his attention to veterans.
TONY ROMANO: I believe that all the things that the president - doing now is just to get re-elected. And I believe that with my whole heart.
ALLEN: At this American Legion Post, most members are older veterans. In another part of Jacksonville, at Disabled American Veterans Chapter 1, James Wilson is a younger vet who likes the president's health care plan and his focus on improving veterans' benefits. But especially for returning vets, Wilson says, the number one issue is the economy.
JAMES WILSON: I'm certain that veterans are more so thinking about jobs, employment, security.
ALLEN: Returning vets face a higher unemployment rate than the general public, and at the same time, a huge backlog that's holding up claims for those who file for disability. Anthony Principi, former veterans affairs secretary and adviser to the Romney campaign, believes the Obama administration is falling short. An outreach program to military families, Principi says, isn't enough.
ANTHONY PRINCIPI: Look at the unemployment rate. Look at the backlog of claims. Look at the delays in getting mental health treatment. These are all of the important things that have to be delivered - not promises, not outreach.
ALLEN: Peter Feaver, a professor of political science at Duke University, is skeptical that the voting patterns of veterans are changing that much. He says of course when you bring in women - in this case, military wives - it will be good for Democrats. But he does give the campaign credit for shifting discussion away from the president's opposition to the war in Iraq - a position that was unpopular with many vets - to improve treatment for those returning home.
PETER FEAVER: And so he was opposed to the Iraq war, but for paying benefits for those fighting the Iraq war. And it was politically a very shrewd way of balancing his opposition to the war while maintaining a posture of support for the military institution.
ALLEN: Appealing to veterans and military families may pay off in states like Virginia, North Carolina and Florida if the vote is close. But the effort is also important for another reason: Ads aimed at vets and addresses like the one President Obama gave yesterday at the Air Force Academy help reinforce his trustworthiness as commander-in-chief. Greg Allen, NPR News.
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