By Eric Johnson
CHICAGO (Reuters) - As the war in Iraq draws to a close, U.S. President Barack Obama's re-election campaign has quietly enlisted an army of veterans to urge other military men and women to vote for him in November.
The Obama campaign has built a network of more than 700 supportive veterans to promote the president in key states such as Virginia and North Carolina, where 13 percent and 11 percent of residents are veterans, respectively.
These states are among a dozen divided battleground states that could hold the keys to victory in the 2012 election.
The move is a sign that the Obama campaign will aggressively tout the commander-in-chief's record as a military leader while it tries to assure Americans that the president can lift the struggling U.S. economy.
The strategy contrasts with Obama's approach as a presidential hopeful in 2008, when he focused largely on the economy and had to deflect criticism that he was naive and inexperienced in military matters.
As president, however, Obama has presided over military and intelligence operations that have killed dozens of al-Qaeda and Taliban militants, including al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.
And this week, the president -- a vocal critic of the war in Iraq that was launched by President George W. Bush -- led ceremonies marking the end of that conflict.
In the current campaign, a show of support from veterans also could help Obama counter attacks from Republicans, such as former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, who has called the unemployment rate among veterans of the Iraq war a "disgrace."
"This gives the president a deep bench of national security surrogates who have carried a rifle ... and can speak personally and persuasively about the president's military leadership," a source working with the Obama campaign to roll out the initiative told Reuters.
Obama's campaign has staff members reaching out to veterans and aims to have veterans' liaisons in every state, a campaign official said. It also has tapped outside groups to help round up supportive veterans, a source from one of the groups said.
Veterans who back the president are hosting roughly 30 events this week tied to Obama's visit on Wednesday to Fort Bragg, North Carolina. There, Obama heralded the troop pullout from Iraq by the end of this year, fulfilling a 2008 campaign promise to end the war.
The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have created the largest pool of American veterans since the Vietnam War era. There are more than 20 million veterans in the United States, 15.8 million of whom voted in the 2008 general election and 12.4 million who voted in the 2010 midterm elections, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
During the 2010 elections, Obama's Democratic Party lost control of the U.S. House of Representative as a wave of Republicans -- several backed by the Tea Party, which seeks limits on government and taxes -- toppled Democratic incumbents.
"When you add military members and their full families you are getting about 20 percent of the country," the source working with Obama's campaign said.
Obama is not the first president to use former military members in a campaign. Former president George W. Bush had thousands campaign for him, according to former White House adviser Karl Rove.
The veteran vote could be crucial in 2012. Many veterans live in states key to Obama's re-election, such as Ohio, where 8.2 percent of the population is made up of veterans, and Florida and Arizona, with roughly 12 percent each.
Arizona Senator John McCain, a former navy pilot and prisoner of war during the Vietnam war, won the overall veterans' vote in the 2008 election that he lost to Obama, but Obama was backed by a majority of veterans under age 60.
"People are astounded that Obama has been as strong and tough on the security and foreign policy questions because that was the big question mark" about him, said Republican international lawyer Rita E. Hauser, who was on Bush's Intelligence Advisory Board in 2001 but supported Obama in 2008 based on his stance on the Iraq war.
ASSESSING OBAMA'S RECORD
The Afghanistan war and tension with Iran still could be drags on Obama's foreign policy record before next November's election, but his campaign and its veteran support indicate they will focus on his successes in weakening al-Qaeda.
"His military leadership is probably a net positive for him where the economy is probably a net negative," said Peter Feaver, a professor of political science at Duke who served in the administrations of George W. Bush and Bill Clinton.
The Republican White House hopefuls still will have plenty of avenues through which to attack Obama, Feaver said.
Romney and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, the frontunners in the Republican nominating race, repeatedly have blasted Obama's leadership on foreign affairs.
"His naive approach to Iran has allowed the ayatollahs to come to the brink of a nuclear weapon," said Romney spokeswoman Andrea Saul.
Feaver summed up possible Republican attacks.
"Obama has mishandled the Israel file. He's been slow on the Iran file. He's invested heavily in the Russian reset and that doesn't look to be going really well now. He has authorized a (troop) surge in Afghanistan but undercut it with a time frame (for withdrawal) that encouraged the enemy to wait us out," Feaver said.
There is still violence in Iraq, despite the formal end of the war, said Thomas A. Schwartz, a history and political science professor at Vanderbilt University.
"Obama is taking pride in withdrawing the troops. If something were to go wrong there it might dramatically hurt him," Schwartz said.
Veterans in the Arlington, Virginia, area soon might get a knock on the door from Iraq war veteran and Obama supporter Terron Sims, 34, whose family members served in the armed forces since World War I.
Sims said he was aware the main reason the war was finally declared over was not because of Obama alone, but because of the failure of the U.S. and Iraqi governments to reach an agreement over giving American soldiers legal immunity to stay.
All the same, he said, Obama did decide to pull out.
"I respect the fact that he stuck to his guns on that issue," said Sims, who served in the Army in Baghdad and Al-Kut, Iraq.
(Reporting By Eric Johnson; editing by David Lindsey and Anthony Boadle)