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LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

The shouting matches this week on cable TV had a military air.

(Soundbite of argument on TV show "Hardball with Chris Matthews")

WERTHEIMER: Pete Hegseth and Jon Soltz, here on MSNBC's "Hardball with Chris Matthews," arguing about whether former General Wesley Clark went too far in attacking John McCain's military record. Hegseth and Soltz lead opposing veteran's organizations - one conservative, one liberal - in a year when veterans may have an unusually strong political voice. NPR's Peter Overby reports.

PETER OVERBY: VoteVets.org, that's Jon Soltz's group, made its reputation two years ago. It endorsed several veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan who ran for Congress. And it aired this much-discussed ad against several Republican senators. A veteran fires an AK-47 at a modern body-armor vest and a military-issue vest.

(Soundbite of commercial)

(Soundbite of gunshots)

Unidentified Actor #1: The difference is life.

(Soundbite of velcro unfastening)

Unidentified Actor #1: Or death.

Unidentified Actor #2: Senator Conrad Burns voted against giving our troops this.

Unidentified Actor #3: Now it's time for us to vote against him.

OVERBY: Now, VoteVets is back on TV, this time criticizing John McCain for opposing a new GI bill.

(Soundbite of commercial)

Unidentified Actor #4: McCain thinks covering a fraction of our education is enough.

Unidentified Actor #5: We didn't give a fraction in Iraq. We gave 100 percent.

Unidentified Actor #4: It's time for some straight talk.

OVERBY: VoteVets has always had a liberal tilt. It's against the surge, against the Iraq war, but not against all wars. VoteVets chairman, Jon Soltz.

Mr. JON SOLTZ (Co-Founder and Chair, VoteVets.org): I would call it pro-defeating al-Qaeda. In the past month, we've had more casualties and deaths in Afghanistan than we had Iraq. We have a situation where Osama bin Laden is still on the loose.

OVERBY: But VoteVets isn't the only voice for America's newest veterans. Another group, Vets for Freedom, say they want to defeat al-Qaeda in Iraq. Executive Director Joel Arends says this group has just one litmus test for supporting candidates.

Mr. JOEL ARENDS (National Field Director, Vets for Freedom): And that litmus test is, do you support the surge in Iraq? Do you understand how that relates to national security in this country?

OVERBY: So Vets for Freedom has its own ads online. Here a wounded veteran of the Illinois National Guard says he and some other veterans tried to meet with their home state senator, Barack Obama. But he wasn't available.

(Soundbite of commercial)

Unidentified Actor #6: Yeah, he's willing to travel to Iran to meet with their leader, or anyone else who hates our country. The question for America is if Barack Obama won't listen to us, who will he listen to?

OVERBY: Information is sketchy about financing for both groups here. That's because they both have political action committees which disclose their donors and 501(c)(4) advocacy arms which don't. Quin Monson researches political money at Brigham Young University.

Professor JOSEPH QUIN MONSON (Political Science, Brigham Young University): The fact that they've chosen to act as (c)(4)s indicates that they don't want anyone to know what they're doing, and that the donors probably don't want people to know either.

OVERBY: What we do know is that the VoteVets donor list includes some familiar liberal names: powerful unions and Democratic politicians, plus the big donors group Democracy Alliance, and another liberal financing group, Fund for America, and MoveOn.org. There is less information on Vets for Freedom. It did get 623,000 dollars last year from Freedom's Watch. That's a conservative organization, largely underwritten by casino magnate Sheldon Adelson.

Four years ago, one veterans group had a huge impact, Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, which attacked democrat John Kerry. It's unclear if a vets' group could have that kind of effect this year. But Vanderbilt University Professor John Geer who studies negative advertising says a combat veteran who is anti-Iraq, a VoteVets kind of veteran, could be seen as the most plausible voice.

Dr. JOHN G. GEER (Professor of Political Science, Vanderbilt University): Because this person is coming from the context of having served. So I think, yeah, it's a real strong card for the Democrats to play if they can.

OVERBY: The kind of card that both groups say they'll be playing from House races all the way up to the White House. Peter Overby, NPR News, Washington.

WERTHEIMER: We had help on this story from the Center for Investigative Reporting.

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