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US veterans remain sharply divided

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But for a significant number of veterans, Kerry's antiwar activism after he returned from Vietnam - especially his charge that many atrocities occurred in the war - has them riled enough to work for his defeat.

Some 250 patrol boat veterans recently sent a letter to Kerry challenging his fitness to serve as commander in chief.

They wrote: "It is our collective judgment that, upon your return from Vietnam, you grossly and knowingly distorted the conduct of the American soldiers, marines, sailors, and airmen of that war (including a betrayal of many of us, without regard for the danger your actions caused us). Further, we believe that you have withheld and/or distorted material facts as to your own conduct in this war."

Other observers note the positive aspects of wartime experience on national leadership - whether or not the particular war involved was controversial or not.

"Kerry grasps the political ramifications and human consequences of military choices in a way that Bush, even now, does not," says Loren Thompson, a political scientist at the Lexington Institute who specializes in national security issues. That speaks to Kerry's time in the Navy as well as to his foreign affairs work in the Senate.

But beyond direct military or foreign affairs experience, Dr. Thompson suggests, personality and temperament may be the best indicators of how effectively Kerry will fulfill the role of commander in chief.

"Ronald Reagan was at peace with himself, and that made him an effective leader," Thompson says. "In emotional terms, Kerry seems more like Reagan than the current president does."

Veterans don't always sway veterans

Combat experience is not necessarily a plus, of course. In 1972, the decorated World War II pilot - George McGovern - was trounced by Richard Nixon, who had been a noncombatant naval officer.

Opinion polls suggest that Kerry has work to do in convincing veterans that they should vote for him. Most Americans registered to vote would pick Kerry (49-41 percent), according to a CBS News poll taken last month. But among vets, Bush had the edge 54-40 percent.

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