SEMINOLE - I stopped in at the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 9272 looking for a dose of clarity in the presidential campaign.
Amid a relentlessly tight race that seems to defy historical comparisons, I thought I might find consensus beneath the hand-carved VFW plaque reading, "It's Not the Price You Paid to Join; It's the Price You Paid to be Eligible."
After four days watching Massachusetts Sen. John "Reporting for duty" Kerry highlight his combat-decorated veteran status while a parade of vets saluted him at the Democratic National Convention, I had a hunch about what I'd find at the VFW post. My expectation: a group of veterans overwhelmingly supportive of the incumbent commander in chief and leery of all the emphasis on Kerry's Vietnam experience.
I'd seen Tampa lawyer Bill McBride get nowhere touting his own Vietnam experience while trying to unseat Gov. Jeb Bush in 2002, after all. And war hero John McCain getting crushed by George W. Bush among South Carolina's big population of veterans. Kerry, I surmised, would make few inroads at the VFW.
Amid the passionate patriots gathered over Budweisers and smokes before their post meeting last week I heard the same stark polarization one finds nationally. If anything, I heard more support for Kerry than Bush among the dozen or so veterans with whom I chatted - or at least more anti-Bush sentiment than pro-Bush sentiment.
"All the veterans that died in the past, it was to defend our freedom and our rights. Any time somebody starts intruding with our freedoms and our rights, like the Patriot Act is doing, they're going to have a problem with me," said Vietnam veteran Norman Pickett, a lifelong Republican who will vote for Kerry. "And Iraq is looking like Vietnam again. For the soldiers who are in-country, where's the plan to win?"
At Post 9272, members rarely talk politics with one another. When Pickett introduced me to 79-year-old Joe Billis, a Navy veteran who survived Normandy, he seemed genuinely surprised to hear of Billis' staunch support for Kerry.
"I'm through with Bush," declared Billis, who has no use for any of the Bush family, which he sees as living by sweetheart deals and opportunities few others have.
Billis is unimpressed with Kerry's emphasis on his medals and military experience - "that's what we call overkill," he said - but at least he's not Bush.
Mirroring the national picture, I found no post members on the fence between Kerry and Bush.
Walt Closson, a Vietnam veteran who spent 21 years in the Army and Air Force, said he's undecided, but he didn't sound that way. He's looking for decisiveness and moral certitude and someone opposed to gay rights. Kerry is "wishy washy," he said, and he is skeptical about Kerry's three Purple Hearts, and Bronze and Silver Stars.
"He only did four months (in combat duty) over there. I don't see any big bodily harm done to him. That's questionable," he said of Kerry's medals. "People say Bush is a liar, but he's not a liar. He was misled (about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq), but he's never told one lie."
That hint of defensiveness was consistent among Bush supporters at Post 9272 and predictable for an election that boils down to a referendum on the incumbent.
Post commander Roy Schulz thinks someone with combat experience tends to better understand veterans issues and war, but strongly backs Bush, who is doing a "fantastic job." The president could have been stronger on veterans' benefits, he said, but "he's had a lot of important issues to handle."
A couple of people expressed disgust with Kerry's role as an antiwar protester after he returned from Vietnam, but mostly I heard voters talking about gut reactions to the candidates.
Despite his medals and "band of brothers" joining him on the campaign trial, Kerry excited few people at Post 9272. But Bush has turned off plenty of them.
"I would say most of the people here voted for Bush before, but a substantial majority will go for Kerry this time," said Gary Brennan, who heads the men's auxiliary. "Most of the guys here vote for the man, not the party, and what's happened to VA benefits and other issues is changing people's minds. A big issue hurting Bush is the question of integrity."
Keep in mind that mine was an entirely unscientific sampling of opinion. Then again, a CBS poll released last week suggested that 48 percent of registered voters who have served in the military backed Kerry, while 47 percent supported Bush. In June, CBS found Bush leading Kerry among veterans by 14 percentage points.
Consensus and clarity, it seems, remain as tough to find in the VFW as anywhere else.