- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 9, 2012

Enlisted personnel and civilian military employees are donating more to presidential campaigns than in previous elections, and they overwhelmingly prefer two candidates: Ron Paul, the long-shot Republican presidential contender opposed to using U.S. forces as the “world’s police,” and President Obama.

Mr. Paul and Mr. Obama, who’s slashing the Pentagon’s budget, have received nearly the same number of donations of at least $200 from military voters, but the GOP candidate’s haul adds up to $100,000 more than the president’s, a Washington Times analysis of publicly available Federal Election Commission records showed.

Each has lapped the rest of the GOP field several times, taking in 20 times as many military donations as former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and more money than all their rivals combined. Mr. Paul took in $300,588 to Mr. Romney’s $30,293.

“If we’re going to go to war, and there’s a good reason, then we shouldn’t be fighting with two hands behind our back because we’re doing peacekeeping,” said Jordan Whitson, a soldier in the Army National Guard in Alabama who has written three checks to the Paul campaign. “Germany, South Korea and Japan — there’s a lot of money wasted over there.”

It makes for a curious juxtaposition: As candidates appear with veterans groups to seek one of the most coveted informal endorsements in politics — pledging support for the military with veterans’ benefits but also budgets that would increase the size of the active forces — troops are speaking out in favor a limited role for the armed forces.

Some said their views on war evolved after seeing the horrors of battle firsthand.

“One possibility is that ironically, it’s the troops who see better than civilians that Ron Paul’s vision of a less-militarized society could be good for America,” said Aaron Belkin, author of “Bring Me Men,” a study of military life.

And Mr. Romney’s reputation as a “flip-flopper” is a pronounced vulnerability to troops.

“In military culture, authenticity is prized,” Mr. Belkin said.

Mr. Paul, who served as a flight surgeon in the Air Force from 1963 until 1965, is the only veteran in the field. But his views on foreign policy are notable among candidates from both parties for the speed and scale of his proposed downsizing of the military, including withdrawal from Afghanistan and an end to peace-keeping missions.

Mr. Obama has pledged to withdraw from Afghanistan by 2014, and across-the-board cuts on his watch are forcing the Defense Department to make significant trims.

Smaller donations, where Mr. Paul and Mr. Obama excel, are not made public, so the donations of more than $200 serve as a barometer of broader sentiment.

The nearly 4,000 contributions to presidential candidates far exceed the total much later in the 2008 election cycle. The split between the parties also tops a mounting pile of evidence that the politics of the military are more diverse — and complex — than the conventional wisdom that troops were overwhelmingly conservative, experts said.

Much of that is because the forces are young, a demographic in which both Mr. Obama and Mr. Paul have found new enthusiasm. For the same reason, any feared backlash against Mr. Obama among the enlisted for repealing the ban on openly gay service members never materialized, Mr. Whitson said, and donations indicated.

“It’s all your young generation, born in the ‘80s and ‘90s. … The people with the more old-fashioned beliefs have moved on.”

In 2000, Republican George W. Bush raised double the amount of Democrat Al Gore among military personnel. In 2004, in a race scarred by negative advertising from a group called Swift Boat Veterans for Truth that questioned Massachusetts Sen. John F. Kerry’s service in Vietnam, Mr. Bush raised $1.50 from the military for every $1 his Democratic opponent collected.

But by just before the nominating conventions of 2008, with the war in Iraq a significant issue and onetime prisoner of war Arizona Sen. John McCain promising a sustained commitment and Mr. Obama favoring withdrawal, troops favored Mr. Obama over Mr. McCain with their contributions. His advantage jumped from modest among all troops to a ratio of 6 to 1 among those deployed abroad.

For some who have seen combat, choices motivated by the realities of war may actually run counter to their broader political beliefs.

“It’s more practical and individual rather than ideological,” said J.D. Gordon, a retired Navy commander who this week founded Protect America, a national-security-themed super PAC that will run ads for the Republican presidential nominee and in congressional races. “I don’t agree with it, but I understand it,” he said of the desire for an end to foreign entanglements among some war-weary soldiers.

“A lot of them have done deployments in Afghanistan and Iraq and don’t ever want to go back.”

• Luke Rosiak can be reached at lrosiak@washingtontimes.com.

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