- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 28, 2008

BILLINGS, Mont. | Sen. Barack Obama, angling for veteran and military voters from rival Sen. John McCain, pledged Wednesday to rebuild the Department of Veterans Affairs and claimed his Republican foe would continue President Bush‘s policies that he says neglect troops returning from war.

“I had some strong disagreements with George Bush and John McCain about the war in Iraq,” the Illinois Democrat said. “But one thing I thought we would all agree to is that when our troops come home, they are going to be treated with the honor and respect that they deserve. … The fact is, those hundreds of thousands of troops who are coming home right now are not getting what they need.”

“It’s heartbreaking,” he told about 225 veterans and military family members at a town-hall meeting in Riverfront Park.

Vice President Dick Cheney, addressing the American Legion annual convention in Phoenix, strongly defended the administration’s record, noting that the $94 billion requested for veterans programs in the upcoming budget is nearly double what it was when Mr. Bush took office in 2001.

The request includes more than $5 billion for new and expanded veterans’ facilities around the country, Mr. Cheney said.

“President Bush and I came to office determined to raise the quality of veterans’ health care, to get more money to the VA and to trim the backlog in processing disability claims,” he told the gathering. “Aided by your strong voice on Capitol Hill, we’ve been able to make a big difference for veterans and their families.”

Military voters are key to Mr. Obama’s strategy to win states such as Montana, a state with one of the country’s largest per-capita concentrations of veterans and one that has voted Republican in nine of the last 10 presidential elections. But the state has shifted in recent years, with a Democratic governor in Brian Schweitzer and Democrats Max Baucus and Jon Tester holding the state’s Senate seats.

The military vote is also critical in states such as Virginia and North Carolina, which have not gone for the Democratic presidential candidate in decades. The Obama campaign thinks it can make inroads in both states and perhaps challenge elsewhere in the solidly Republican South.

Mr. Obama promised to fully fund Veterans Affairs’ programs, increase the number of VA clinics to better serve veterans in rural communities and expand services for those suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.

His pledge for a measured withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq also drew applause from the crowd.

Mr. McCain of Arizona, a decorated Navy pilot who spent more than five years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, enjoys broad support from military voters.

But Mr. Obama said his opponent’s distinguished war record does not make him the best candidate for president.

“We owe him gratitude for that, but we don’t owe him our vote,” Mr. Obama said, “because the stakes are too high.”

Mr. Obama planned Wednesday to fly to Denver, where he will watch running mate Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware address the party convention and put the finishing touches on his own acceptance speech for the Democratic presidential nomination Thursday.

In Billings, he said Mr. McCain is out of touch with the needs of veterans and the needs of middle-class Americans, who he said are struggling with falling household incomes and the rising costs of gasoline, heating fuel and health care.

Repeating a recently added staple of his stump speech, Mr. Obama reminded the crowd that his Republican opponent recently told reporters that he could not remember how many houses he owned and defined a wealthy person as one making $5 million a year.

Mr. McCain and his millionaire wife, Cindy, own or have a stake in at least eight residential properties, according to reports.

“We have a choice in this election,” Mr. Obama said. “Do we have a president who gets that people are struggling every day, who gets that veterans are struggling every day, or do we have somebody who doesn’t get it?”

He also hit Mr. McCain for initially opposing a new GI Bill, which offered expanded education benefits for veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. Mr. McCain raised doubts about the bill early on, saying making benefits available to veterans after a single three-year enlistment could hurt the military’s retention rates.

The bill passed Congress and was signed into law by President Bush this summer.

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