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Originally published Wednesday, October 29, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Michelle Obama reaches out to military families

Sen. Barack Obama, as a major component of his presidential bid, has deployed his wife on a mission to win over military families, many of them traditional Republicans. She has targeted the group with whom she hopes to make a connection — wives of servicemen.

Chicago Tribune

JACKSONVILLE, N.C. — Sen. Barack Obama, as a major component of his presidential bid, has deployed his wife on a mission to win over military families, many of them traditional Republicans. She has targeted the group with whom she hopes to make a connection — wives of servicemen.

But the military is not a voting bloc Sen. John McCain will give up without a fight. He has enlisted a former Navy buddy and fellow prisoner of war in Vietnam to appeal directly to veterans. McCain's wife, Cindy, also has spoken to military groups, though she has not ventured out alone on the campaign trail with the vigor and frequency of Michelle Obama.

Still, military families are at the center of a fierce tug of war that at times has pitted wives against husbands and teenagers against their parents.

In a series of roundtable discussions and rallies in North Carolina, Virginia, Florida and New Mexico — all key battleground states — Michelle Obama, a Harvard-educated lawyer and former University of Chicago Hospitals executive, has tried to liken herself to military spouses, juggling multiple roles as a wife, a working woman and a mother.

Wives vent to her about the about the difficulty of raising children while their husbands are away. They share stories about the loneliness, financial challenges and fears that come with being a military spouse.

"We all have some fundamental things in common," she recently told a crowd of veterans and relatives of service members from Camp Lejeune, from which nearly 60,000 Marines are deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan. "We share a vision of a system that does more to support military families, both when your loved ones are deployed and long after they return.

"We've all been touched by this economic crisis that our nation is facing. ... You feel it when you pay for groceries ... and when you fill up your tank," Obama said. "You feel it in the morning when you wake up with your stomach in knots, worried about what bad news the day may bring."

Her office declined to make Obama available for an interview on this story.

The selection of a president is serious business for all Americans, but notably for military families. He will affect their quality of life while troops are deployed and determine when their loved ones come home for good.

Tamera Steele, 40, said she carefully studied the positions of both candidates before deciding to support Obama. Michelle Obama's visit to Jacksonville helped seal the deal for her.

"(The Bush administration) has pulled so much money from education to defend this war. They always talk about 'No Child Left Behind,' but military children are slipping through the cracks," said Steele, a mother of four and member of the Camp Lejeune School Board.

"And with the deployments, there are a lot of families whose husband has been home four months and gone again. The divorce rate is high and the pay is not that great. We are struggling in the military like everyone else."

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Steele said she and her husband, Gunnery Sgt. Terrance Steele — a 20-year veteran who returned this month from Iraq — sometimes disagree on politics. But this time, she said, they are on the same page.

With nearly 60 percent of the active-duty military between the ages of 18 and 29, the Obama campaign has pounced on an opportunity to attract young military voters, many of them married with families. In close states such as North Carolina, where Obama has a narrow lead in the polls, active and retired military voters could be the determining factor, according to the Obama campaign.

"People in these areas don't often come in contact with a candidate, but it's a big military community. They are as much concerned about the economy and tax cuts for the middle class as the GI Bill and bringing (the Department Veterans of Affairs) into the 21st century," said Obama spokeswoman Susan Lagana.

At the end of the Vietnam War, the military grew increasingly Republican, particularly among the higher ranks. But according to a non-scientific poll of active-duty service members last year by the Military Times, that trend could be reversing. Only 46 percent of service members identified themselves as Republicans, compared with 60 percent in 2004.

"The sense in the military community is that there's a great deal of disappointment in the Bush administration policies," said Richard Kohn, a military scholar at the University of North Carolina. "There is a good deal more neutrality and more of a willingness to vote Democratic."

Military voters in 2004 favored President Bush over Sen. John Kerry 57 percent to 41 percent. A poll released this month by the Military Times showed active-duty service members supporting McCain over Obama, 68 percent to 23 percent. However, they pointed out that the respondents were subscribers who were older, held more senior ranks and were less ethnically diverse than the military as a whole.

"When (Michelle Obama) is talking to military families, what she is saying, she knows nothing about," said retired Lt. Col. Orson Swindle, who handles veteran outreach for McCain. "She's just making promises. Mr. Obama is incredible with words, and she's pretty good herself. But performance and walking the walk is what people in the military want."

Sgt. Nicole Farmer said she and her 26-year-old husband, Staff Sgt. Marques Farmer, who is deployed to Afghanistan, normally agree on whom to support for president because of their strong conservative values. But this time, things are different.

Because she is an active-duty Marine, Farmer could not reveal publicly which candidate she and her husband would vote for. However, she said she supports the ticket that shares her opposition to gay marriage and abortion, while her husband has gone the other way.

"I'm still going to try to sell him on my candidate before he mails in his absentee ballot," said Farmer, 27, who described herself as neither a Democrat nor a Republican.

Making the military a competitive voting bloc poses a problem for active-duty service members, said Peter Feaver, a political scientist at Duke University. Several ranking military leaders, including Gen. David Petraeus, incoming head of the U.S. Central Command, and Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, have said they will not vote in the election in a show of neutrality.

"The military should not be viewed as a special interest or partisan group to be wooed by politicians because they must risk their lives for the president, whether or not they voted for him," said Feaver, a former adviser to the National Security Council under President Bush and President Clinton. "That requires a level of trust that rises above politics."

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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