- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 7, 2008

NORFOLK | Michelle Obama told military wives faced with their husbands’ multiple tours of duty, low military pay and health care concerns that help is on its way Wednesday, as the Democratic presidential candidate deployed his wife to court military families considered vital to flipping this historically Republican state.

“Few sacrifice more to serve their country than you, and I know that too often it seems like you’re doing it on your own,” Mrs. Obama told participants in a roundtable discussion at Old Dominion University.

Stay-at-home mom Beth Robinson, 33, wife of a Marine Corps officer, emphasized that health care, housing and pay should be “not negotiable” when it comes to the government’s responsibility to take care of service members.

“I am disappointed that our struggling military families have difficulty obtaining health care on and off base,” said Mrs. Robinson, whose 18-month-old toddler could be heard calling out to her mother from backstage. “And don’t forget, once the war is over, funding the military must continue.”

Mrs. Obama introduced a blue glossy pamphlet titled “Barack Obama’s Plan to Support Virginia Military Families.” It presented promises including military pay raises, fund increases for Veterans Administration medical care and relief from repeated deployments by “beginning an immediate redeployment of American troops from Iraq.”

Her description of each of the promises was greeted with rousing applause by the small but enthusiastic crowd of supporters in the lecture hall, mostly wives and service members from the collection of major military installations in Norfolk.

Appealing to military families and emphasizing kitchen-table issues is a key component to Mr. Obama’s strategy to win Virginia, which has not elected a Democrat for president since 1964 but which the campaign thinks it can pick off along with a few other states in the solid Republican South.

Democrats view Virginia as ripe for the picking. It has trended their way in recent elections, with Virginians selecting back-to-back Democratic governors, sending Jim Webb to the Senate in 2007 and handing control of the state senate to Democrats that same year. Polls show Mr. Obama and Republican presidential candidate Sen. John McCain in a dead heat.

“This is very much a competitive state now that is moving in a Democratic direction,” said Curtis Gans, director of the nonpartisan Center for the Study of the American Electorate at American University.

He said the Obama campaign made a wise choice in going after the military vote in Virginia. But he cautioned that any group of voters could swing a race that promises to be as close as the presidential contest in Virginia.

“This is a state that has significant Marine Corps bases, Navy bases and Army bases, plus the Pentagon and all the places that feed into it,” Mr. Gans said. “The military vote is one of many votes that could be important. You don’t neglect any segment of the community if you are trying to win.”

The McCain campaign also is pursuing a national strategy to court military wives and service members. Mrs. Obama during the primary race hosted similar roundtables at Fort Bragg, N.C., and Hopkinsville, Ky.

In Norfolk, Mrs. Obama was joined by retired Army Capt. Paul “Bud” Bucha, a Medal of Honor recipient from the Vietnam War who is advising the Obama campaign. He reminded the crowd that Mr. McCain of Arizona voted against the new GI Bill that passed and was signed into law earlier this year.

The highly popular measure, whose chief sponsor was Mr. Webb, gives added education benefits to veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and allows veterans to transfer the tuition assistance to family members.

Round-table participant Elaine Guishard, 46, a breast cancer survivor whose husband will retire from the Navy in three years, said she is terrified about finding affordable health insurance after her family loses active-duty military coverage. Her pre-existing conditions will make health insurance too expensive for her to afford, she said.

“What’s going to happen to me in three years if this cancer comes back,” she said.

Mrs. Obama said her husbands plan for universal health care would provide the answer.

She continued: “If Barack has the distinct honor of serving as your next president and I have the privilege of serving along side of him as your first lady, I’m going to keep taking these concerns to him, because the commander in chief doesn’t just need to know how to lead the military. He needs to understand what war does to military families.”

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