Senator John McCain, R-AZ, may be the one of the only presidential candidates to serve in the United States military. He may also be the most dogmatic of the dwindling group of Iraq war proponents. But among veterans -- a constituency that would seem naturally inclined to such a record -- McCain is dragging behind his three main rivals for the Republican presidential nomination.
According to a recently released Gallup Poll, Republican-leaning veterans prefer both former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani (28 percent) and pseudo-candidate former Tennessee Senator Fred Thompson (25 percent) over McCain (13 percent). Even former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, who was criticized for claiming his five sons served their country (a la soldiers in Iraq) by campaigning for him in Iowa, matches McCain in support among GOP-leaning vets.
The findings are at once disappointing and problematic for McCain, whose service in Vietnam (where he spent five years as a war prisoner) and work in the Senate on behalf of veterans has earned him their praise. But while the Gallup Poll clearly is unwelcome news for the Arizona Republican, the reasons for McCain's flagging veteran support are hard to pinpoint.
The McCain campaign did not return repeated requests for comment. Those working on behalf of veteran's affairs, however, suggested that past military service did not give the Senator a pass for his current policy positions.
"A veteran supporting another veteran just because he's a vet - they may be favorably disposed to him, but there are other issues on which they would choose a candidate," said Adriel Domenech, communications director for the non-profit Vets for Freedom. Domenech cited immigration and campaign finance as issues that might push Republican vets away from McCain.
Others see McCain's proximity to President Bush as the overriding detriment.
"McCain was critical of Bush from the right on Iraq. He looked different from Bush," said John Fortier, a research fellow with the conservative American Enterprise Institute. "Then Bush had the surge, and it looked a lot like what McCain was proposing. [McCain's] great attraction last time was that he was a maverick... all the sudden now he was stuck with Bush, an unpopular president with an unpopular war."
Both politically and symbolically, McCain's dragging veteran support poses significant problems. Votes are at stake. Ninety-one percent of the approximately 24 million vets in the United States - the majority of them Republicans - cast ballots in presidential elections, according to the membership organization Veterans of Foreign Wars. And while the Iraq war has shifted the political landscape, there is still plenty of room, officials say, for a pro-war candidate to win over an overwhelming portion of the veteran community.
"The war has divided the nation's veterans as much as the country, especially for those vets that have served in a war zone," said Joe Davis, a spokesperson for Veterans of Foreign Wars. "But when you deploy Americans forces you don't go to lose ... McCain is a lifetime VFW member and he has hope [for victory]."
Up to this point, however, excitement for a possible McCain administration simply hasn't materialized. Fifty-two percent of all veterans (Republican and Democrat) may view the Senator favorably, according to the Gallup Poll, but he also has higher negative ratings - 40 percent - than each of his rivals for the Republican nomination.
For a campaign that has already seen its fair share of mishaps, the loss of a seemingly reliable voting bloc is ill-afforded.
"[Being a vet] should help McCain recruit veteran support," said Fortier. "This poll is bad news for him."