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Echoing McCain, Moulton Focuses On Veterans In Early N.H. Campaign Stops04:45
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Rep. Seth Moulton, D-Mass., introduces himself as a presidential candidate as he goes to shake hands with Gerard St. Pierre during a campaign event held at Liberty House in Manchester, N.H. Tuesday, April 23, 2019, (Cheryl Senter/AP)
Rep. Seth Moulton, D-Mass., introduces himself as a presidential candidate as he goes to shake hands with Gerard St. Pierre during a campaign event held at Liberty House in Manchester, N.H. Tuesday, April 23, 2019, (Cheryl Senter/AP)

A month into his presidential run, Seth Moulton is addressing small groups at events across New Hampshire.

He's making veterans a centerpiece of his campaign, touting his combat service, questioning President Trump's leadership of the military, and modeling his campaign on another veteran who stood up to Trump.

It's a crowded field, with a total of 23 Democrats running for president.

When Moulton gets to the Londonderry meeting of the Rockingham County Democrats, they've just wiped the name of the last candidate to visit off the chalkboard: former Maryland Congressman John Delaney, and replaced it with Moulton's.

The congressman travels with three aides, his wife and daughter, and a camera crew who drop in and out. When he gets to Londonderry, about 30 people are waiting to hear what he has to say.

"I'm not trying to do something radical and explosive and suddenly get a lot of attention," Moulton says. "What I'm trying to do is steadily build grassroots support from the ground up, and it's a model that's been used successfully here in New Hampshire by John McCain."

When McCain began his first presidential campaign in the spring of 1999 — a year before the New Hampshire primary — only 13 people showed up to his first event.

Like McCain, Moulton is a combat veteran. He led a Marine platoon in combat and was awarded the Bronze Star for valor. He was in the first company of Marines into Baghdad in 2003. He fought during four tours in Iraq. He is trying to stand out from the other 22 candidates by talking about his combat experience.

"If the CIA comes to me with a bunch of intelligence when I'm sitting in the Oval Office, it will not be the first time in my life that I've had an intelligence report and had to ask tough questions about it," Moulton says. "That's the difference between someone who's actually led troops on the front lines versus someone who's never had that responsibility of knowing what it means to have young Americans under your command."

There are two other veterans in the race. Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, served in the Navy Reserve in Afghanistan tracking financial networks that supported the Taliban and al-Qaida. And Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard, of Hawaii, served in a field medical unit in Iraq with the Hawaii Army National Guard.

Moulton is giving special consideration to veterans. Prior to the Londonderry meeting, he holds a round table with half a dozen of them.

He emphasizes foreign policy and Trump’s performance as commander-in-chief. He tells the veterans Trump is sending military assets to the Persian Gulf to provoke Iran into an “attack” — much like the incident that started the Vietnam War.

"I think that the reason why he's sending a carrier group and potentially up to 120,000 troops to the region is essentially to provoke a Gulf of Tonkin-type of incident, where there's some trigger that then says OK, we've got to attack," Moulton says.

In the Gulf of Tonkin incident of 1964, a U.S. destroyer fired at North Vietnamese boats, which fired back. As a result, Congress passed a resolution granting President Lyndon Johnson authority to assist South Vietnam, and Johnson used that as the legal justification for deploying conventional forces to Vietnam.

Moulton tells the veterans he's worried the Trump administration is escalating tensions with Iran.

"In 2004, I was literally fighting Iranians on the ground in Iraq," Moulton says. "They were killing American troops and we didn't respond to that by sending in 100,000 more troops and an aircraft carrier group. So the only explanation I have for what this administration is doing right now is trying to provoke a war."

At 40, Moulton is the youngest vet in the room. All the others are from the Vietnam and Gulf wars. The larger crowd at the Democratic gathering is also older and mostly white. At this stage, Moulton is drawing interest from voters who always turn out. He's not attracting new voters to the race yet.

The people Moulton meets are non-committal. Some say his policies lack detail compared to Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren. Others say he's too young. But some are enthusiastic. Moulton is counting on them to reach what he says is his first important milestone in this campaign: to get the 65,000 contributors needed to secure a spot in the first presidential debates in June.

Asked how many Moulton has so far, a spokesman says the campaign is not commenting on fundraising until the end of June.

This segment aired on May 21, 2019.

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Fred Thys Twitter Reporter
Fred Thys reports on politics and higher education for WBUR.

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