Video: Courting the military vote

msnbc.com news services
updated 8/19/2004 11:59:22 AM ET 2004-08-19T15:59:22

Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry criticized President Bush’s proposal to recall up to 70,000 foreign troops Wednesday as a hastily announced plan that would raise more doubts about U.S. intentions than it answered.

Bush, meanwhile, sought to quell growing anger among senior citizens over the high cost of prescription drugs, conceding that it “makes sense” for Americans to be able to import cheaper medicines as long as they are safe.

Speaking in Cincinnati at the convention of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, Kerry attacked Bush’s plan to bring home troops from Cold War-era bases in Europe and Asia.

“Nobody wants to bring troops home more than those of us who have fought in foreign wars,” Kerry said. “But it needs to be done at the right time and in a sensible way. This is not that time or that way.”

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Bush announced his plan Monday at the same gathering. The president said the repositioning of forces would help save money on maintaining bases overseas.

Kerry singled out Bush’s plan to cut 12,000 of the 37,000 U.S. troops in South Korea for criticism.

“Why are we withdrawing unilaterally 12,000 troops from the Korean Peninsula at the very time we are negotiating with North Korea — a country that really has nuclear weapons?” Kerry asked.

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Kerry quoted Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., as saying North Korea was probably more dangerous than at any other time since the end of the Korean War in 1953. “This is clearly the wrong signal to send at the wrong time,” Kerry said.

Kerry argued that Bush’s policy would dangerously reduce forces at a time when the nation was fighting the al-Qaida terrorist network in 60 countries.

“Let’s be clear — the president’s vaguely stated plan does not strengthen our hand in the war on terror,” he said. “It in no way relieves the strain on our overextended military personnel. It doesn’t even begin until 2006, and it takes 10 years to achieve. And this hastily announced plan raises more doubts about our intentions and our commitments than it provides real answers.”

Kerry’s campaign cited a three-month-old Congressional Budget Office report that said pulling back troops from overseas would produce at best only small improvements in the United States’ ability to respond to far-flung conflicts. The report also said a large reduction of the U.S. military presence overseas could cost $7 billion up front, although annual savings could be more than $1 billion.

Defense officials said this week on condition of anonymity that the study used different assumptions from the president’s redeployment plan. They said the savings for the Bush plan could not be calculated until officials determined precisely which units would return to the United States, what domestic bases they would use and what overseas installations would be closed.

Defense officials also say plans to trim U.S. troops in South Korea would not give North Korea an advantage. Military officials have said advances in U.S. military firepower and a stronger South Korean military mean there can be more military power in the south with fewer soldiers.

Support for Bush
In response, the Bush campaign released a list of statements from Republican senators, former military officers and others praising the president’s proposal as essential to fighting new threats facing the United States.

“John Kerry’s opposition to troop realignment demonstrates a backward-looking view that blindly embraces the status quo and ignores the realities of the post-9/11 world,” said retired Gen. P.X. Kelley, who commanded the Marine Corps from 1983 to 1987.

With voters focused on the war on terrorism, the VFW convention was the perfect backdrop for both candidates to tout their war plans. The convention was set in Ohio, a top battleground state, with a live audience targeted by both campaigns.

Although veterans lean Republican, Kerry also is seeking their support in this election. Kerry promotes his own service in the Vietnam War as a mutual connection and is even bucking the tradition of suspending campaigning during the opposing party’s convention to speak to the American Legion in Nashville on Sept. 1, in the middle of the Republican National Convention. Allison Dobson, a spokeswoman for Kerry, said it was the only event he had scheduled during the Republican gathering in New York.

Leading up to his party’s convention, Bush rolled out Wednesday on his third bus tour of Wisconsin since May, when he campaigned in the Mississippi River farmlands that eluded him in the 2000 election. He lost the state by fewer than 6,000 votes.

Last month, Bush rode a bus through the heavily Republican western suburbs of Milwaukee and addressed a campaign rally in Green Bay, where the electorate is more evenly split.

Northwestern Wisconsin, the setting for Wednesday’s trip, appears to be shifting Republican. While Democrat Bill Clinton won the area twice, “this is rural, small-city and it doesn’t seem to have the demographics of Democratic counties,” said John McAdams, a political science professor at Marquette University.

At his first stop Wednesday, in Chippewa Falls, an area he won by 700 votes four years ago, Bush Bush proposed to increase monthly education benefits for all National Guard members and reservists on active duty for more than 90 consecutive days.

The president also proposed giving states grants to help children in military families who have to move. “We’re going to put out grant money to help states ease the burden so it’s more seamless for families to go from one state to the next,” Bush said.

“We’ll continue to stand side by side with those who wear the uniform and the family members of those who wear the uniform,” he said before heading off to Minnesota, another state where he and Kerry are running neck and neck.

Later, at a rally in Hudson, Bush said his administration was studying the issue of imported prescription drugs, although five states have sidestepped federal regulators and are already giving residents access to imported drugs, mainly from Canada, where prices are much lower than in the United States.

“If it’s safe, then it makes sense. But I have an obligation for the safety of our citizens,” he said.

Illinois said this week that it would join Minnesota, Wisconsin, New Hampshire and North Dakota in allowing residents access to imported medicines. It included drugs from outlets in Europe.

The Food and Drug Administration considers such programs illegal and argues that drugs may not be safe. But the outcry over high prescription drug costs has become a big election-year issue.

“I’m looking at this,” Bush said. “There’s a lot of pressure in Congress for importation. What I don’t want to do is be the president that says we’ll allow for importation and, all of sudden, drugs that are manufactured somewhere else come in over the Internet and it begins to harm our citizens.”

The presidential race is close in Wisconsin and Minnesota. The trip was Bush’s fifth of the year to Wisconsin and his fourth to Minnesota, matching Kerry’s count. He was scheduled to speak later Wednesday at a rally in St. Paul.

After this latest campaign swing, Bush heads south for a week at his ranch in Crawford, Texas.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

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