KANSAS CITY, Missouri (Reuters) - Sen. Barack Obama on Tuesday told U.S. military veterans who largely back the war in Iraq that he is committed to pulling the troops out — something his Democratic presidential rival, Sen. Hillary Clinton, played down when she spoke to the group earlier.
Some among the thousands at the Veterans of Foreign Wars convention in Kansas City gave the Illinois senator high marks for confronting the issue loudly and up-front, even if many didn’t agree with his stand.
Obama, 46, praised U.S. soldiers serving in Iraq as having performed brilliantly, but reiterated a call to withdraw combat troops, saying “there is no military solution in Iraq.”
“One reason to stop fighting the wrong war is so that we can fight the right war against terrorism and extremism,” focusing instead on fighting terrorist roots in Afghanistan and Pakistan, Obama told the group.
Clinton, the Democrats’ front-runner in national opinion polls, spoke to the same veterans’ group on Monday, but played down any discussion of troop redeployment, mentioning only in closing remarks her anti-war stance while focusing on her ideas for improving benefits and services for veterans.
A USA Today/Gallup poll two weeks ago found Clinton leading Obama 48 percent to 26 percent in the race for the nomination. While the former first lady, 59, aspires to be the country’s first woman president, Obama aims to be the country’s first black president.
Obama also laid out plans to ramp up funding and services for veterans, but in comparing the two, some veterans gave Obama higher marks for tackling the divisive issue head on.
“He knew it was going to be unpopular but he said it anyway. That takes guts,” said Larry LeFebvre of Kansas City, who was among a group of veterans jockeying for pictures and handshakes with Obama following his speech. “We need somebody who is going to be commander in chief who has guts.”
Other veterans still saw the anti-war position as a deal-breaker and said they would not vote for any candidate that favored withdrawing troops prematurely from Iraq.
“We’ve got troops over there that are doing an awesome job. Let them do their job,” said Gary Brown, a Vietnam veteran from Lansing, Michigan. “They did this to us in Vietnam. And that made us hurt.”
Potential U.S. presidential contender Fred Thompson, 65, who has yet to officially declare his candidacy, also spoke before the gathering of war veterans on Tuesday.
Like fellow Republican Sen. John McCain, who addressed the group on Monday, Thompson championed the continued deployment of U.S. troops in Iraq, invoking a need to protect American “freedom.”
Thompson, a Hollywood actor and former Tennessee senator, derided war critics “who think that if we pull out of Iraq our problems are going to be over.” He said American troops are “definitely making progress in Iraq” and warned that expression of divided views on the war emboldened American enemies.
“I’m a little tired of people feeling the necessity to apologize for the United States of America,” Thompson said, drawing cheers and applause.
John Edwards, a Vietnam Vet not to be confused with the Democratic presidential candidate by the same name, said he liked Thompson’s message and agreed with his call for troops to remain in Iraq.
But Edwards, who traveled from Reno, Nevada, said he was generally unhappy with all of the candidates pursuing a presidential run.
“I’d like to have a new person on the ballot — ‘none of the above’,” he said.