Service shapes political opinion

WASHINGTON --- Brandon Ziegler served two tours in Iraq and wears a bracelet inscribed with the name of an Army buddy who never made it home. Jim Morin saw action in both Iraq and Afghanistan and has lost several friends to the war in Iraq, the latest just a month ago.

Both say their choice in the 2008 presidential election is clear: For Mr. Ziegler, it will be John McCain; for Mr. Morin, it will be Barack Obama.

Those viewing the presidential race through the lens of military service can see it entirely differently: The desire to quickly get out of Iraq is balanced against the hope to see the country stabilized; respect for one candidate's storied military history is weighed against another's relative youth.

Sizing up the candidates, retired Command Sgt. Maj. Ronald Friday in South Carolina laughs and predicts, "It's going to be an interesting summer." Put him in the undecided column.

Mr. McCain, with a family tradition of military service and his own history as a Vietnam prisoner of war, holds natural appeal for members of the military and for veterans. An AP-Yahoo News poll conducted last month found that veterans favored Mr. McCain over Mr. Obama 49 percent to 32 percent, while the two candidates ran about even in the population as a whole. Three-fourths of veterans in the survey thought Mr. McCain would be a good leader of the military, compared with one-fourth who thought likewise of Mr. Obama.

Nonetheless, dissatisfaction with the course of the war under President Bush and with the treatment of veterans returning home has given Mr. Obama, who did not serve in the armed forces, an opening with military voters and veterans. So does his appeal to younger people.

That Mr. Obama attracts support from some in the military is evident in dollars and cents: Among people who have donated at least $200 to a presidential campaign this election cycle, Mr. Obama has collected more than $327,000 from those identifying themselves as military personnel, while Mr. McCain has collected $224,000, according to an analysis of Federal Election Commission data by The Associated Press.

But it is in the voices of recent veterans and of those still serving that the McCain vs. Obama debate comes alive -- although most active-duty personnel are loath to air their views publicly because they are discouraged from mixing in politics.

Mr. Friday, who retired last year after serving as the top command sergeant major at Fort Jackson in South Carolina, said he doesn't want either candidate to take his vote for granted, based on his race or his career.

"I don't want anyone to think that because he (Obama) is of the African-American heritage that he automatically has my vote, or that McCain will get it because I was in the military," said Mr. Friday, 49, who is black.

He added that he understands what Mr. McCain meant when he said the United States could have troops in Iraq for 100 years, but he doesn't necessarily support the statement. Still, he predicted, "We will be in Iraq until death do we part."

Such talk rankles Sgt. Kenyon Ralph, 24, of San Diego. Sgt. Ralph, a Marine reservist who served in Iraq twice, is a member of Iraq Veterans Against The War, and is backing Mr. Obama.

Sgt. Ralph, who once was a registered Republican and twice voted for Mr. Bush, says he gradually turned against the war and now can't bring himself to vote for someone who supports keeping troops in Iraq.

"What did he say? One hundred years or something," Sgt. Ralph said of Mr. McCain. "We've got five down and 95 more years to go."

Richard Kohn, a professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill who has studied the gap between military and civilian attitudes and culture, said that although members of the military, particularly the officer corps, in recent decades have favored Republicans, the enlisted force is much more politically balanced. And Mr. Kohn said there are signs that "the shine has probably worn off the Republican brand to some degree among the military," in part because of discontent with Mr. Bush over foreign policy and veterans' issues.