By THOMAS BEAUMONT
NORFOLK, Va. (AP) - The far-flung swing states that have the most sway in the presidential election have something else in common _ a large share of military veterans who are getting special attention from the fiercely dueling campaigns.
In a White House campaign this hard-fought, no interest group can be ignored. But veterans are an especially prized group since so many live in battlegrounds including Colorado, Florida, New Hampshire, Nevada, North Carolina and Virginia.
Backing those who have served the country also sends a feel-good patriotic message to the electorate at large. And although veterans traditionally lean Republican, both candidates see an opening to win over veterans this year.
The next president will face U.S. troops returning from Afghanistan and a continuing budget crisis with veterans benefits under scrutiny.
Navy veteran Rob Meurer fears for his own livelihood at a northern Virginia aerospace manufacturer if military spending cuts are enacted during a second administration for President Barack Obama. Defense cuts "could devastate our military and our business," Meurer said.
At the other end of the state, Hampton Roads area Air Force veteran Lawrence Ewing fears the quality of his health care will suffer should the government privatize benefits under Republican Mitt Romney.
"We simply cannot afford cuts to the VA," Ewing said.
The candidates are reaching out to veterans in all nine of the most competitive states as part of a system of targeting voters by specific backgrounds and lifestyle. Veterans account for about 17 percent of registered voters nationally, but more than that in most of the battleground states. It's a predominantly male voting bloc, one with a high propensity to register and turn out, which could help Romney offset Obama's edge among female voters.
Florida has the most with 1.6 million veterans _ one-fifth of the state's registered voters _ as well as nearly 30 military bases or installations. Among the battleground states, Nevada, New Hampshire, Colorado and North Carolina also run higher than average, and have varying combinations of bases, military academies and veterans' centers.
But nowhere is fight over the military vote more apparent than in Virginia, the home of 822,000 veterans. Many live in the shadow of Norfolk Naval Station, the world's largest naval base. The sprawling complex has a population the size of Orlando, Fla., and is the economic magnet of Tidewater region.
Reminders of the military's dominance are everywhere in the Norfolk area. Fighter jets roar overhead of rows of imposing warships docked in Hampton Roads Harbor.
It is also home to the Norfolk Naval Shipyard, in nearby Portsmouth, the Navy's largest industrial installation. And Virginia has production facilities for a long list of military contractors such as General Dynamics, Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman, who together employ hundreds of thousands in the state.
Romney promotes a military buildup and links Obama with a deficit-reduction plan supported by Republicans and Democrats alike in Congress that would cut military spending and cost potentially thousands of defense industry jobs. Romney's running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan, also voted for the cuts as laid out in the "sequestration" that lawmakers passed during the summer 2011 budget deal.
Romney says GOP lawmakers made a mistake in supporting the plan. Obama too has vowed that the automatic cuts will not take place.
"Nothing is more important than keeping America strong, and you hear it in Romney," said Bob Anderson, a retired Navy veteran from Milburn in northern Virginia.
Romney and Obama are running neck and neck in Virginia, a state Obama carried in 2008 and which Romney needs to reach the electoral threshold.
"Unlike cutting the military as this president would do by a trillion dollars, I will instead maintain our military strength because that is because America's military must be second to none and so strong that no one would ever test us," Romney said last week at a rally in Leesburg, Va.
Romney also accuses Obama of doing too little to expedite the backlog of claims for disability, pension and educational benefits at the Department of Veterans Affairs. That criticism echoes through a Virginia Beach Republican phone bank, where veterans and their spouses volunteer.
"Veterans always found more for us. We need to find more for them," said Elizabeth Blackley, a veteran wife and Virginia Beach volunteer.
Overall, veterans' issues don't even crack the top 10 in national polls of campaign priorities, where the federal budget deficit, health care, terrorism and illegal immigration run far behind jobs.
The veteran vote has hardly been a bellwether in recent elections.