Image: Ngoc Qui Nguyen
Nick Ut  /  AP
Ngoc Qui Nguyen, 71, is unable to vote because she's not a United States citizen, but most of her 12 children who are citizens are planning to vote for Sen. John Kerry.
updated 10/21/2004 2:58:14 PM ET 2004-10-21T18:58:14

Here in the teeming markets and cafes of Little Saigon, the shifting political loyalties of Vietnamese American voters are evident when conversation turns to November's presidential election.

Westminister and neighboring Garden Grove, which make up the nation's largest Vietnamese community, have long been Republican strongholds, but generational changes and misgivings over President Bush's policies have weakened GOP support among Vietnamese Americans.

Still, despite concerns about Bush, the Iraq war and a lackluster economy, few are rushing to embrace his Democratic challenger, Sen. John Kerry, who has made his Vietnam War military service a centerpiece of his presidential bid.

Most Vietnamese Americans respect that Kerry, unlike Bush, risked his life and fought the Communists as a swift boat captain on the Mekong Delta. It's what Kerry did when he returned from the battlefield that angers them.

Many here resent the Massachusetts senator for protesting the Vietnam War as a young veteran, engaging with Vietnam's Communist leaders and not taking a tougher stance on human rights and democracy in their homeland.

Bush also supported engagement with Vietnam, but Kerry gained notoriety in the Vietnamese community as the senator who worked to normalize U.S.-Vietnam relations and blocked legislation that would have tied U.S. aid to improvements in Vietnam's human rights record.

That has provided plenty of ammunition for Vietnamese Republicans to blast the Democratic presidential hopeful, and made it difficult even for Democratic activists to vote for Kerry, let alone stump for him.

"It's a very sensitive issue for anyone who's a registered Democrat," said Xuan Vu, 31, a community activist and Democrat in Orange County. "People feel very hesitant about Kerry. If they vote for Kerry, it's really about how much they dislike Bush."

Russ Lopez, California spokesman for the Kerry-Edwards campaign, declined to comment.

Loyalities shifting with new generations
In the decades since the Communists prevailed in Vietnam, hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese, many with links to the South Vietnamese government and army, have immigrated to the United States. More than 1 million now live in the United States, with growing communities in San Jose, Houston, Northern Virginia. Orange County has the most people of Vietnamese descent — 130,000 according to the 2002 census.

Their story is similar to that of Cuban Americans, another traditionally Republican voting bloc whose loyalties are shifting along with a new generation of voters. But Cubans have much more influence, since they're concentrated in the swing state of Florida. Vietnamese are more scattered, with their largest communities in solidly Democratic California.

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In Little Saigon, the broad boulevards are lined with shopping centers packed with restaurants, banks, realtors, doctors, travel agents and supermarkets catering to Vietnamese patrons. Reflecting their growing political clout, the streets are plastered with campaign signs for Vietnamese candidates running for the school board, city council, and mayor's office. This year, there's also a state assembly candidate, Van Tran, who would be the nation's highest-ranking Vietnamese-American if elected to the California Legislature.

Opposition to Vietnam's Communists remains fierce here, at least among the most politically vocal. Earlier this year, the city councils of Westminster and Garden Grove passed resolutions to ban Communists from visiting their communities. Five years ago, some 15,000 people demonstrated for nearly two months when a video store owner displayed a Vietnamese flag and a portrait of communist leader Ho Chi Minh.

Younger generations more liberal
As voters, Vietnamese Americans have traditionally backed the GOP because of the Republican Party's strong stance against Communism. But that's changing. Between 1992 and 2002, the share of Vietnamese registered Republicans in Orange County fell from about 60 percent to about one-third, as more voters identified themselves as independents and Democrats, according to Christian Collet, a political scientist at the University of California, Irvine.

"The segment of the community that participates remains in vigorous opposition to the government of Vietnam," Collet said. "What you have seen in recent years, however, is a greater willingness of younger Vietnamese Americans to speak out and oppose this view."

Vietnamese who grew up in the United States tend to be more socially liberal and less Republican than their parents. They worry more about education, jobs and the economy than about communism and U.S.-Vietnam relations.

"The party of Bush is bringing America down. We need to change to the Democrats," said Dang Tran, 37, a truck driver who lives in Lawndale. "We don't need to talk about the Vietnam war anymore. That was a long time ago."

But growing support for the Democrats doesn't necessarily translate into votes for John Kerry.

Many older immigrants remember him as the angry young veteran who railed against the Vietnam War and tossed his medals at an anti-war rally in the nation's capital.

"He's a communist sympathizer like Jane Fonda and Tom Hayden," said Ky Ngo, 51, a longtime Republican activist in Orange County. "We lost the country because of him. He helped the Communists when he spoke very badly about the war. He slandered our soldiers."

Mixed feelings
Kerry is also remembered as the Senate subcommittee chairman who blocked the Vietnam Human Rights Act after it passed 410-1 in the House two years ago. Fellow veteran John McCain, R-Arizona, and many foreign policy experts agreed with Kerry, who argued that engaging Vietnam was the best way to promote human rights, and passing the legislation would only boost the country's hard-liners.

Nevertheless, the Vietnamese-language media accused Kerry of coddling Vietnam's communist leaders.

"When he opposed the Vietnam Human Rights Act, it was like stabbing a knife in the chest," said Duc Nguyen, 32, a community activist and registered Democrat in Fountain Valley. "I hope that he reconsiders the wishes of Vietnamese voters."

Some older veterans of the South Vietnamese army have become disillusioned with President Bush, but still can't bring themselves to vote for Kerry.

Ngoc Tran, 58, of Westminster, is a former air force officer, isn't sure he'll vote for either candidate.

"I respect all U.S. soldiers who fought in Vietnam, but when (Kerry) returned, he told a lot of lies," Ngoc said, discussing politics with fellow veterans over iced French coffee and jasmine tea.

Elsewhere in the country, Vietnamese Americans also have mixed feelings about Kerry.

Hung Nguyen, 32, of Fairfax, Va., disagrees with Kerry's stance on Vietnam, but argues that since both candidates support engagement with the Communists, other issues are more important. Still, he's cautious.

"I don't want to damage my reputation with the community by completely supporting Kerry," said Nguyen, a Democratic activist in the Washington, D.C. area. "It's an uphill battle for us to convince the rest of the community."

© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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