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During chow-time at a U.S. Army base outside Baghdad, Spc. Amanda Pagac has lately heard the soldiers of B Company, 118th Medical Battalion, tossing around one particular adjective.
"Slime!" they call out between forkfuls of dinner.
It's not the food they're bashing. The epithet-among others, she says-rings out whenever Sen. John Kerry's face appears on the dining facility TV.
The low approval rating isn't merely anecdotal. Two separate surveys of U.S. military personnel, conducted just as soldiers stationed overseas are casting their ballots, show the president leading his challenger by surprising margins. The results are more significant, considering that many of the respondents include those the president has ordered into harm's way.
Army Times Publishing Company last month surveyed active duty, Guard, and reserve subscribers to Army Times, Navy Times, Marine Corps Times, and Air Force Times, all commercially published papers owned by Gannett. Among 4,165 respondents, Mr. Bush outpolled Mr. Kerry 73 percent to 18 percent.
A survey released last week showed similar results. In the University of Pennsylvania's National Annenberg Election Survey, 69 percent of military voters held a favorable opinion of Mr. Bush and considered him the best choice for commander in chief, compared to 29 percent who viewed Mr. Kerry favorably, and even fewer-less than one-fourth-who said they preferred the senator to lead them.
In Baghdad the unofficial pollsters indicate that Mr. Bush will come out on top again. "The two people I'm closest to have already sent in their absentee ballots for President Bush," said Spc. Pagac, 22, of Wisconsin. She said she also voted for Mr. Bush. "I know there are some that will vote for Kerry, but based on what I've heard just walking around, I feel the majority supports President Bush."
With a decorated war veteran running against a wartime president popular with the troops, the dynamics of the 2004 election have churned up keen interest-interest experts say has no modern precedent-in how America's 2.6 million active duty, Guard, and reserve military will vote. "Not in my lifetime has there been this much interest in the military vote," said Peter Feaver, a Duke University political science professor who has written extensively on the politics and voting preferences of military personnel.
Mr. Feaver attributes new interest in armed-services balloting to the confluence of new political hot potatoes: national security in the midst of war on terror, the Iraq war, and the military's all-volunteer makeup. Throw in a too-close-to-call presidential race, and political pundits have vital interest in how GI Joes and GI Janes are voting.
Democrats early on tried to chisel away a voting bloc long considered reliably Republican. "Democrats have attempted to woo the military more ardently than in recent years," Mr. Feaver said. "The party has been at a disadvantage with military voters since Vietnam. But after 9/11, Democrats decided they could no longer afford that disadvantage."
Choosing Mr. Kerry, with his official record of combat valor, was in itself calculated to appeal to military voters. The Kerry camp has also rolled out a parade of four-star endorsements, most notably from former Air Force Chief of Staff Tony McPeak. Historically, military endorsers stand by their own man without overtly bashing the opponent, a potential (or incumbent) commander in chief. Not so with Gen. McPeak, who Mr. Feaver said has tossed out "some of the roughest, toughest red-meat critiques of Bush yet."
The president "does not know that we're in a hole over there," the retired general told about 150 people attending a Veterans for John Kerry rally in Medford, Ore., on Oct. 15. "The worst mistake a statesman can make is not to be in touch with the real world because that sin is paid for by our sons and our money. We simply have to get rid of this guy."
Medford veterans broke into cheers, but Gen. McPeak's rhetoric did not impress soldiers on the ground like Sgt. Justin Garrett, 21, of Missouri. Stationed at Log Base Sietz, Iraq, he has fought head to head with insurgents in Baghdad, Taji, Balad, Ramadi, and Samarra. Sgt. Garrett said he appreciates President Bush's famously unswerving-some say stubborn-resolve to engage terrorists on their own turf. "I know that when push comes to shove like it does so many times around here, I want a president that will shove back," he said.
Other soldiers believe Mr. Kerry has shoved too, but in the wrong direction: "To me, he put himself in a position where he is a traitor," 1st Cavalry Division Army Spc. John Bass, 26, told Army Times from Iraq. "I don't want someone like him running this country."
Spc. Bass's views were echoed in the Army Times Publishing Company survey. Nearly two out of three service members said Mr. Kerry's post-Vietnam anti-war activities made them less likely to vote for the senator. Meanwhile, only about one in 10 said Mr. Kerry's combat service made them more likely to mark their ballots his way.
Still, Mr. Kerry does have military supporters in Iraq. A September article in the Christian Science Monitor called anti-Bush troops a "strident minority" whose passion is fueled at least in part by the Michael Moore film, Fahrenheit 9/11. Soldiers who spoke with the Monitor seemed disillusioned by a perceived shift in the Bush administration's justification for attacking Iraq.
"There's no clear definition of why we came here," Army Spec. Nathan Swink, of Quincy, Ill., said. "First they said they have WMD . . . then it was to get Saddam Hussein out of office, and then to rebuild Iraq. I want to fight for my nation and for my family . . . not to protect Iraqi civilians or deal with Sadr's militia . . . Kerry protested the war in Vietnam. He is the one to end this stuff, to lead our exit of Iraq."
Pollsters like never before are watching not only the content but also the conduct of overseas military balloting, a bloc widely credited with tipping Florida's 27 electoral votes-and the presidency-into George Bush's column in 2000. On Nov. 17 of that year, Sunshine State election officials counted 2,500 mostly military overseas ballots, rejecting 1,500 on technical grounds that included missing postmarks. Of the remaining ballots, Mr. Bush tallied a net gain of 739 votes and wound up winning Florida by only 537.
The Department of Defense (DOD) is pushing to end criticism of its military absentee voting apparatus. Still smarting from the missing-postmark fiasco of 2000 that nullified thousands of overseas military votes in Florida and elsewhere, DOD this year sent U.S. postmarking machines to exotic outposts ranging from Djibouti to the Syrian border, along with detailed instructions to armed-forces postal workers about how and when to stamp ballots.
In July and September, the agency sponsored overseas voter registration drives. Following that, planes, choppers, and humvees trundled ballots to more than 225,000 U.S. Central Command troops and DOD personnel serving in the Middle East, Central Asia, and North Africa. This month the Pentagon is underwriting its own get-out-the-vote drive, encouraging overseas personnel to actually mark their ballots and drop them in the mail.
Whether those ballots will be counted is an open question. Some states did not mail absentee ballots overseas until mid-October. In Arkansas, for example, the Democrats' court challenges to Ralph Nader's candidacy delayed the printing and mailing of absentee ballots. Arkansas voter registrars finally mailed out ballots on Oct. 8, but some counties, caught without finished printed ballots, had to send out Federal Write-In Absentee Ballots instead.
In Florida's Miami-Dade County-focal point during the 2000 recount-absentee ballots did not go out to military personnel until Oct. 11. With ballots having to travel thousands of miles and back again in a lengthy and complex transportation relay, observers worry that some overseas service members will once again be locked out of the election.
In swing states, even a few hundred disenfranchised military voters could mean the difference in the election. In hotly contested Ohio, for example, 1,100 Guard and reserve troops will vote from overseas. In Pennsylvania, where polls show the candidates in a statistical dead heat, 15,000 Guard and reserve troops will send in absentee ballots from foreign lands.
With several battleground states decided in 2000 by a few hundred to a few thousand votes-including New Mexico, Iowa, Florida, Oregon, and Wisconsin-the rank-and-file soldier standing a lonely watch over miles of Middle Eastern sand has morphed into a significant swing voter. And the debate over who is best to lead the war in Iraq could be decided by those who are fighting it.