Could military veterans decide the Republican presidential contest? They largely tilted the GOP race to war hero John McCain in 2008, by delivering the critical swing votes in South Carolina and Florida, and by offsetting the enormous surge of evangelical voters toward former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee in those two states.
And now it appears they are poised to do it again – this time for Texas governor Rick Perry, a former air force captain who's the darling of veterans groups in Texas, and who just powered his way to the top of the GOP leader board following his dramatic entry into the race last Saturday.
Perry still has his work cut out for him, of course. As the new GOP front-runner - he's leading Mitt Romeny and Michele Bachmann by 11 and 16 points respectively in the latest Rasmussen poll - he’s now the object of intense scrutiny, and it’s not clear how well he – or his mixed Texas governing record – will fare under the glare of a national spotlight when a single gaffe or misstep can prove costly.
But most veterans groups, at least, appear to like Perry, thanks to his ongoing support for causes such as college tuition credit for soldiers on active duty. Even Texas Democrats like San Antonio's Leticia Van de Putte, who are critical of Perry’s conservative leadership have joined forces with Perry on veterans’ issues, a key area of bipartisan cooperation that Perry’s likely to start touting on the presidential trail.
Perry and his fellow Tea Party darling Michelle Bachmann are scheduled to campaign head to head this week in South Carolina, where a quarter of the GOP electorate is comprised of soldiers or war veterans, one of the highest ratios in the country. Republican South Carolina Gov. Nikky Haley, who won election last November, has introduced legislation that wil make it easier for soldiers to vote in her state, another measure that is likely to help Perry.