President Obama and Republican rival Mitt Romney each trolled for military votes Thursday in the critical swing state of Virginia, and although polls show Mr. Obama with a slight edge overall in the state, he is having trouble convincing veterans that he should remain their commander in chief.
For the second straight day, Mr. Obama shared a battleground state with Mr. Romney, who spoke to a veterans group in Springfield while the president reached out to voters at a campaign stop in the military stronghold of Virginia Beach. Both candidates were in Ohio Wednesday, nearly passing each other when Mr. Obama's campaign traveled to Kent State University late in the day.
In Springfield, Mr. Romney told the crowd that the combination of defense cuts and slow economic growth under Mr. Obama threatened to undermine military strength and he pounced on a revised estimate from the Commerce Department that showed the economy grew at a slower pace than previously thought: 1.3 percent instead of 1.7 percent.
"You have to have a strong economy in order to build a strong military," Mr. Romney said. "The old Soviet Union tried for a while to maintain a grade A, if you will, military, but they had a grade B economy, and they couldn't keep up."
"They collapsed," he said. "We have to have a strong economy."
With so many people connected to the defense industry or economically reliant on it in Northern Virginia, a hotbed for defense contractors, and Hampton Roads, military cuts are a big concern as the regions brace for hundreds of billions of dollars in automatic Pentagon spending cuts if Congress cannot break the budget impasse by the end of the year.
Mr. Obama largely sidestepped the looming defense cuts as well as the weak economic news Thursday, playing to an enthusiastic crowd gathered at an outdoor amphitheater, promising to bring about a "new economic patriotism" and hailing veterans and military families as valued members of the middle class.
Alluding to Mr. Romney's secretly recorded quotes from a spring fundraiser describing 47 percent of the country as dependent on the government and paying no taxes, Mr. Obama appeared to build on a Democratic point that combat veterans overseas also don't pay taxes and thus would be part of the Republican's 47 percent.
"I don't think we can get very far with leaders who write off half the nation as victims," he said. "I don't see victims [in Virginia Beach]. I see all kinds of military veterans who served their country and those military families who love their loved ones when they come back home safe and sound. That's what I see."
At the mention of military families, one woman exuberantly shouted: "Right here!"
The visit to the Tidewater area of Virginia was a homecoming of sorts for Mr. Obama who captured the Democratic-leaning cities along the harbor -- Hampton, Newport News and Portsmouth in 2008 with margins exceeding 60 percent, going on to become the first Democrat in 44 years to win the state in a presidential election. He also split the Republican-leaning cities of Chesapeake and Virginia Beach, winning the former and barely losing the latter, home to the world's largest Navy base, as well as Air Force, Marine and Army bases.
Even though troops and veterans are considered a reliable part of the Republican base, Mr. Obama is aggressively pursuing the veterans' vote to help him keep the crucial swing state of Virginia in his camp in November. An average of recent polls on Realclearpolitics.com gives him a 4.5-percentage-point advantage in the state, but a Suffolk University/NBC12 poll released Thursday shows Mr. Obama clinging to a 2-point lead with 7 percent of the likely voters still undecided, setting up a swing-state nail-biter.
The Obama campaign hoped that veterans would reward him for the killing of Osama bin Laden and the fulfillment of his promises to end combat operations in Iraq and wind them down in Afghanistan. On the stump, Mr. Obama touts the administration's record on bringing attention to veterans' benefits led by first lady Michelle Obama, as well as the administration's efforts to create incentives for hiring veterans who return home as a way to reach out to troops and their families weary from long separations and multiple deployments.
But, even as Mr. Obama has been opening up leads in broad-based polls and several swing states, Mr. Romney is attracting far more military voters in the crucial battlegrounds of Florida, Ohio and Virginia, according to several NBC/Wall Street Journal/Marist polls.
Several former Navy SEALs and Special Forces political action committees have lambasted Mr. Obama in the wake of the mob storming of the U.S. Embassy in Cairo, and the killings of four Americans at the U.S. Consulate in Libya, including U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens, questioning the lack of security at both diplomatic posts and whether the administration had intelligence predicting the attacks.
If the Mitt Romney signs speckling neighborhoods around the outdoor amphitheater near Naval Air Station Oceana where Mr. Obama spoke are any indication, the Democrat still has some convincing to do when it comes to military voters here, headquarters of SEAL Team 6, the elite unit that led the raid on Osama bin Laden's compound inside Pakistan.
Mr. Romney has spent plenty of time along the Norfolk waterfront, where he chose to announce his running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, last month with a battleship as the backdrop, and visited just last week advocating for an increase in fighter production.
During his remarks Thursday, Mr. Romney reminded voters that defense sequestration was Mr. Obama's idea, calling it "a kind of gun-to-your-head opportunity."
"It is still a troubled and dangerous world, and the idea of cutting our military commitment by $1 trillion over this decade is unthinkable and devastating," he said. "And when I become president of the United States, we will stop it."
Mr. Obama avoided talking about military spending, except to say he would take the money the country is spending on Iraq and Afghanistan and shift it over to creating infrastructure jobs, rolling out a new campaign theme, promising "a new economic patriotism that growing our economy begins with growing a strong middle class."
He turned instead to an attractive advocate for his re-election and an appropriate messenger for the audience: Retiring Sen. Jim Webb of Virginia, a highly decorated Vietnam combat veteran, Marine and a former secretary of the Navy.
Acknowledging that, at times, he and Mr. Obama disagreed probably "once a week," Mr. Webb, an independent-minded Democrat and author of the updated GI Bill, gave an impassioned endorsement of the president's re-election bid.
Mr. Webb said voters are "fed up with unnecessary military ventures" in places like Iraq and Afghanistan.
"We've got a busted economy. They want to know that their education will lead to a decent job that their retirement years will be protected, that their children and grandchildren will live in the most prosperous nation in the world," he said. "If you want those guarantees, my advice to you is you better be voting for Barack Obama."
Writing off Mr. Romney as someone "whose view on foreign policy seems awkward and uniformed," he also accused the Republican challenger of failing to understand that "many on government assistance today want to live the American dream just as much as those who already have it."
Veterans, he said, who receive benefits "are not takers."
"They are givers in the ultimate sense of the word."
• Susan Crabtree reported from Virginia Beach, and Seth McLaughlin reported from Springfield.
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