GOP dispatches vets to focus on security

Posted Oct. 09, 2008, at 10:52 p.m.

BANGOR, Maine — The Republican National Committee was host to a three-stop “Not Ready to Lead” tour through Maine on Thursday, attempting to shift the conversation in the presidential race from the economy to a portrayal of Sen. Barack Obama as inexperienced on national security.

“You need to do more than shoot hoops with soldiers,” Gary Bernsten, a retired CIA officer, said Thursday at Sen. John McCain’s headquarters in Bangor. “This should be about what they have done, not what they say they’re going to do.”

Bernsten and Capt. Erik Swabb, an Iraq war veteran, made stops in Portland and Lewiston on Thursday morning before wrapping up the tour in Bangor. Both McCain supporters had strong words about Obama’s foreign policy credentials from his inability to acknowledge the benefits of the surge in Iraq to his position on Afghanistan.

“He talks about ending this misguided war, but what message does that send to troops [in Iraq],” said Swabb, who served with the U.S. Marine Corps in Iraq in 2004-05. “Senator Obama has consistently advocated what is politically expedient.”

Adam Cote, chairman of Maine Veterans for Obama, countered that the Illinois Democrat’s judgment alone will make America more secure.

“He has strong support among veterans in Maine because we need change after the Bush administration’s mismanagement of the Iraq war, underfunding of veterans services, and refusal to use smart, aggressive diplomacy to make our country safer,” said Cote, an Iraq war veteran and one-time Republican. “For eight years, John McCain has marched in lockstep with President Bush, and the last thing we need is four more years of the same.”

Before the recent economic crisis, polls found the race between McCain and Obama to be much closer, in part because of the Arizona senator’s well-known foreign policy credentials. However, as the economy has become the top issue with most voters — Mainers included — polls have shifted in Obama’s favor.

“I understand that the economy is important and I don’t want to diminish it, but a healthy economy is not solely contingent on the president,” Swabb said. “National security is the president’s primary responsibility.”

Cote dismissed the national policy focus as a distraction.

McCain’s campaign has been more aggressive in Maine in recent days, trying to appeal to voters in the 2nd Congressional District, which is typically the more conservative part of the state. Because Maine splits its four electoral votes, McCain could steal one of those if he wins the 2nd District.

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