Presidential hopeful George W. Bush repeatedly has sought to blame the Clinton administration and Vice President Al Gore for problems facing the nation's military.
Aboard his campaign plane Thursday, Mr. Bush said the nation's military is being deployed overseas too often and that morale is low. Speaking to the Veterans of Foreign Wars last month, he talked about "a military in decline."
Mr. Gore, countering the attacks, has touted his commitment to national defense and defended the Clinton administration's policies. He told the VFW that he will make sure that "our military continues to be the best-trained, best-equipped, best-led fighting force in the world."
Vice presidential candidates Dick Cheney, who was the secretary of defense under former President George Bush, and Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., also have gotten their shots in this week.
As the candidates and their champions continue to parry and jab, military analysts suggest that the truth is out there â€“ somewhere.
The nation's armed forces are universally recognized as the world's strongest. Yet there are concerns about morale; the quality of life for service members and their families; aging equipment; and combat readiness.
"The interesting thing about what the Democrats and the Republicans have been saying is that, for the most part, both sides are correct," said Joseph J. Collins, a retired Army colonel who once served as a strategic planner for the Pentagon. "They're really sort of talking about different things. The Republicans are saying, 'We're not where we were 10 years ago.' And the Democrats say, 'We're strong, and we're still the best in the world.'"
If there's blame to go around, the analysts offer up a long list of suspects: the Clinton administration, previous administrations, the Pentagon and members of Congress whose defense of pork sometimes has benefited military contractors more than it has helped the military.
There's also wiggle room for both parties. Both Mr. Gore and Mr. Bush have suggested fixes for perceived shortcomings in the military. The Clinton administration can point to several measures that have been taken. Republicans are more inclined to credit the leadership of Congress, which is dominated by their party.
And beyond the politics, a healthy economy doesn't help the military to recruit and retain service members.
Where they agree
On some issues, the differences between Mr. Bush and Mr. Gore are a matter of degree. Both support some form of missile defense, better benefits for service members, modernization and research that will help the nation maintain its military edge. A large gap exists when it comes to the commitment of U.S. forces overseas.
"I think the big issue with Gore â€“ there will be a very large disconnect between an expansive foreign policy and a very small defense budget..." said Gary Schmitt, executive director of the Project for the New American Century, a defense and foreign policy think tank in Washington. The Bush camp, he said, is "hoping to squeeze the current force and current operations down to generate savings for long-term modernization, and I doubt whether ... there are sufficient savings to do what they want to do."
Problems with military readiness and morale are recurring themes in Bush's stump speeches. He's identified defense as one of his four top issues (Social Security, education and taxes are the others).
The Center for Strategic and International Studies, a public policy research organization in Washington, conducted a survey of service members earlier this year that examined some of the issues of the campaign.
"We found that morale in the units we surveyed was decidedly mediocre â€“ not abysmally low, but certainly not high," said Dr. Collins, a senior fellow at the center.
"We also found lots of complaints about readiness. And it seems there's a different perception of readiness in the field than there is in Washington. Folks in the field are uneasy, and one of their most frequently cited complaints was a shortage of people and resources in their specific units."
For the Bush campaign, defense is an issue that traditionally has appealed to conservative voters.
"Obviously Governor Bush wants to raise the overall issue to higher prominence than Gore ... partly out of traditional Republican affinity for conservative voters, partly out of the natural role of the challenger who identifies problems and tries to highlight how they've developed under the incumbent," said Michael O'Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.
Will people listen?
How that will play with the public is another question.
"My guess is there won't be a ton of resonance," said Dr. O'Hanlon, a former analyst with the national security division of the Congressional Budget Office. "I think Gore and Lieberman are parrying the criticisms of Bush well enough that, politically, this is not going to help Bush. And it's going to be, to some extent, a missed opportunity."
Dr. Frank Vandiver, director of the Mosher Institute for International Studies at Texas A&M University, acknowledges that, in peacetime with no apparent threat looming, the public may not be focused much on military issues. But, he adds, they should be.
"We're sort of going back to the doldrum period in the '20s and '30s, when nobody wanted to have anything to do with the Army and the Navy," he said. "We're sort of in 'standby' mode. But every time we've done that, somebody has come along and caused trouble."
Dr. Collins said readiness is a legitimate issue, although he also doesn't believe that it will ever be a "front-line, first-rank issue, like prescriptions for the elderly or education."
Republicans have failed to effectively exploit readiness problems "because they haven't marshaled their data ... and the only time they've attempted to use facts, they've blown it."
He referred specifically to a comment Mr. Bush made during his acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention. Mr. Bush asserted that, if called upon by the president today, two divisions of the Army would have to report "Not ready for duty, sir."
His remarks were based on an assessment of two Army divisions in the Balkans last year. Gore supporters and Secretary of Defense William Cohen, a Republican, countered that the two divisions briefly did not meet readiness standards.
History also may help to deflect some of the criticisms leveled by the Bush campaign at Mr. Gore.
The origins of the cutbacks in the military can be traced to the end of the Cold War, while President Reagan was still in office. Major reductions in the force began during the administration of President Bush and under the guidance of his defense secretary, Mr. Cheney.
Vice presidential candidate Cheney, almost a decade later, asserts that the cuts made during the Bush administration were prudent but that the Clinton administration has allowed the military to decline too much.
"For moderately difficult missions in the near-term future, we're ready," Dr. Collins said. "But the future is a much more cloudy situation."
Staff writer Carolyn Barta traveling with the Bush campaign and The Associated Press contributed to this report.