NORFOLK, Va. — The far-flung swing states that have the most sway in the presidential election have something else in common — a large share of military veterans who are getting special attention from the fiercely dueling campaigns.
In a White House campaign this hard-fought, no interest group can be ignored. And veterans are an especially prized group, since so many live in battleground states including Colorado, Florida, New Hampshire, Nevada, North Carolina and Virginia.
Backing those who have served the country also sends a feel-good patriotic message to the electorate at large. And although veterans traditionally lean Republican, both candidates see an opening to win over veterans this year.
The next president will face U.S. troops returning from Afghanistan and a continuing budget crisis with veterans benefits under scrutiny.
Navy veteran Rob Meurer fears for his own livelihood at a northern Virginia aerospace manufacturer if military spending cuts are enacted during a second administration for President Barack Obama.
Defense cuts “could devastate our military and our business,” Meurer said.
At the other end of the state, Hampton Roads area Air Force veteran Lawrence Ewing fears that the quality of his health care will suffer should the government privatize benefits under Republican Mitt Romney.
The candidates are reaching out to veterans in all nine of the most competitive states. Veterans account for about 17 percent of registered voters nationally, but more than that in most of the battleground states.
It’s a predominantly male voting bloc, one with a high propensity to register and turn out, which could help Romney offset Obama’s edge among female voters.
Florida has the most with 1.6 million veterans — one-fifth of the state’s registered voters — as well as nearly 30 military bases or installations. Among the battleground states, Nevada, New Hampshire, Colorado and North Carolina also have varying combinations of bases, academies and veterans’ centers.
But nowhere is the fight over the military vote more apparent than in Virginia, the home of 822,000 veterans. Many live in the shadow of the Norfolk Naval Station, the world’s largest.
The sprawling complex has a population the size of Orlando, and is the economic magnet of Tidewater region.
Romney and Obama are running neck and neck in Virginia, a state Obama carried in 2008 and which Romney needs to reach the electoral threshold.