Car bombs rather than Obama, making it home rather than McCain dominate the talk among many U.S. soldiers in Iraq's deadliest city during the final countdown to America's presidential election.
Dangers, distance from home and the dawn-to-dark effort in an alien environment push U.S. politics into a corner for many soldiers — especially in combat outposts where television and the Internet are not readily available.
"Regardless of who wins the election, we are going to be here 15 months. And our mission is not going to be fundamentally affected, at least in the short term," said Capt. Justin Davis Harper after returning from a patrol into the northern city of Mosul's most violent zone.
Harper, of Sherman, Texas, said "a small minority are excited about elections" in his 130-member "Killer Troop" of the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment. But most have not voted although they have had the opportunity to do so.
The U.S. military has traditionally tilted toward the Republican Party, and analysts said they do not expect this election to be different. But they also said Barack Obama's appeal to youth, African-Americans and Hispanics — all groups over-represented in the military — could cut into support for John McCain.
"Most soldiers talk about what they are going to get out of the election — our pay raises, who will want to send us home or not," said Cpl. Sean Morton, a 25-year-old reconnaissance scout from Boston.
Voting process criticized
The voting process for troops overseas has been criticized as overly bureaucratic, antiquated and flawed.
Soldiers must request by mail an absentee ballot from the local election district where they last lived. Then they are sent a paper ballot to fill out and mail back. Some soldiers said they never got ballots.
But voting assistance officers stress they made every effort to help and encourage the 146,000 soldiers in Iraq to vote.
"Be Smart. Do your part. Vote!" reads a poster in the Mosul unit's main room.
"It's cool to be able to vote out here and not miss out on what others at home are doing," said Morton, adding that he sent in his request for an absentee ballot six months ago but only received it last week.
The number of absentee military ballots applied for that ultimately get counted is consistently low. In the last federal election, only about 30 percent of overseas military ballots were tallied, according to data from the federal Election Assistance Commission and the Pew Center on the States.
At meal times in the vast dining hall at Mosul's Camp Marez, some soldiers set their trays near a large-TV screen invariably tuned to Fox News, which is widely regarded as espousing conservative viewpoints. But in line with the historic separation of military and civilian government, the troops have been told to keep their political opinions close to their chests.
"The general policy for anything to do with voting is to not expose any of our military members to interviews or filming during the election season. As service members, it is not appropriate to give any indication on how we feel concerning the presidential election," said Lt. Cmdr. David Russell, a military spokesman in Baghdad.
Some officers say they did not send in absentee ballots to underline their political neutrality.
"You can find every shade of opinion among the troops, right across the board," said Maj. John Oliver, an operations officer in the cavalry regiment. Oliver, from Fontana, Calif., did not vote.
No public voting data
How soldiers in Iraq or anywhere else vote will not be accurately known since government agencies do not make such data public.
"My guess is that the military will continue to vote Republican but less so in that direction because this time there are conflicting impulses at work," said Richard H. Kohn at the University of North Carolina.
McCain, a former Navy pilot and Vietnam War POW, is attractive to service members and "adept at its language," Kohn said. "But at the same time, I detect a disappointment and even anger at the way Bush has managed, ranging from treatment of the wounded to gross errors in waging the war in Iraq."
Peter D. Feaver, a political scientist at Duke University, said Obama has appeal among the youth, African-Americans and Hispanics, which could boost his votes from the military where those groups are disproportionately represented.
In Mosul, some officers seemed less focused on the U.S. vote than the upcoming Iraqi provincial elections, which they hope will calm violence in this city 225 miles northwest of Baghdad.
Others hoped Iraqis will be inspired by seeing democracy in action in the United States.
In January "we'll have a new government after a long political process and we will not have shed one ounce of blood," said Lt. Col. Brian R. Bisacre, of Wakefield, Mass., who commands the 728th Military Police Battalion. "I think the Iraqi people will watch that and want to emulate that process."