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Veterans angle for a overdue shout out during tonight's debate

A leading veterans group, seeking to muscle any mention of military issues into the first presidential debate, published an online voter guide Tuesday listing five criteria on which service members past and present can judge the two candidates and ultimately cast their votes. 

Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, a nonpartisan and nonprofit group with more than 200,000 members, released "Vote Smart For Vets" on its website with hopes that its five stated benchmarks — along with some mathematical prodding — will prompt Republican candidate Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama to tangle on topics that include the military suicide epidemic or the high veteran unemployment rate. 

"Our goal is to obviously make progress on these issues but also just to get the candidates talking about them," said Paul Rieckhoff, chief executive officer and founder of IAVA. "We get a lot of pandering. We get a lot of pleasantries. We get a lot of ceremony. But let’s get down to specifics.

"We’re trying to force just a conversation of any kind (about veterans) when economic issues are front and center," added Rieckhoff, who served as a first lieutenant and infantry rifle platoon leader in Iraq during 2003 and 2004. 

The five-point checklist drafted by the IAVA for veterans and vet-friendly voters "to evaluate your candidates' platforms" is placed in this order:  

  • Ensuring Iraq and Afghanistan veterans have the tools they need to succeed in the civilian work force;
  • Ensuring every veteran has the right to the education benefits they have earned;
  • Improving mental health programs in the military and VA to prevent further suicides among troops and veterans;
  • Modernizing the claims process at the VA so that veterans have access to the benefits and resources they have earned;
  • Improving VA healthcare facilities and claims processes for female veterans. 

How have Romney and Obama fared — in the eyes of veterans — in their attention to or work on those five points? 

"The reality is that neither one has been judged on them yet because these issues really haven’t been a focal point in the campaign," Rieckhoff said. "You’re not hearing about plans to lower veteran unemployment."

Related: NBC/WSJ poll: Obama holds lead over Romney in key battleground Ohio

Partly due to the lagging U.S. economy, joblessness has dogged thousands of men and women who have returned after serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. During 2011, the veteran unemployment rate was more than 12 percent — far above the national median. In August of this year, that number was 10.9 percent — still higher than the rest of the American work force. 

"We view this as not just a social issue but an opportunity for investment. If you invest in these men and women coming home it’s going to produce a tremendous return," Rieckhoff said. "This is might be the one thing  Romney and Obama could agree about on the stage. But we’ve got to force the questions.

"Just one question about veterans during the debate makes everybody remember that we’re out there," he added. 

If either campaign needs more convincing that winning the military and veterans vote could tip the election, IAVA is armed with the sorts of stats that make pollsters drool. 

More than 2.4 million veterans have served in Iraq and Afghanistan. Three battleground states are packed with veterans: 60,000-plus in Ohio, and more than 150,000 in both Virginia and Florida. The organization also reports that 90 percent of new veterans are registered to vote, and many remain undecided.

In fact, according to a membership survey IAVA conducted last year, more than 40 the group's participants don't identify themselves as Republicans or Democrats.

"If you look at the broader military and veterans population, that’s an incredibly influential voting bloc. And not only are they strong in numbers and not only are they registered to vote in a high percentage, they’re also very influential," Rieckhoff said. "They have an opportunity to be force multipliers — not only influencing their families but influencing their communities.

"They're also incredibly nonpartisan," he added. "They’re patriotic and pragmatic and they just want to see people who can get things done. They are much more dedicated to their country than they are their party. They are a political jump ball."

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