01/09/2012 08:53 pm ET Updated Mar 11, 2012

Incoming! Expect a Fierce GOP Battle for the Military Vote in 2012

There's more potential bad news for President Obama's re-election prospects in 2012. Even as the jobless rate continues to trend downward, a key Republican-leaning voting group that Obama made some surprising inroads with in 2008 -- active-duty soldiers and military veterans -- may be on the verge of abandoning him.

According to the annual Military Times poll, support for the president among active-duty personnel has declined from 70% to just 25%, a phenomenal drop in the course of a single year.

What has so many soldiers in a state of near-mutiny? The war in Afghanistan, mainly. Approval of the president's handling of the conflict has slipped from 47% to 26% over the past year, according to the Times poll. The other issue, of course, is repeal of "Don't Ask Don't Tell," or DADT. Only 31% of survey respondents said the issue directly affected their unit, but five times as many said that the impact of repeal -- in terms of troop morale and cohesion - would be negative

Ironically, many military voters had warmed to the president after their initial skepticism following his election. The president rattled the saber in Afghanistan and kept open the controversial US military base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. And in Oslo, while receiving the Nobel Peace Prize, Obama outraged many pacifists by extolling the need and the moral imperative for American interventionism

But if this latest poll is to be believed, Obama may have squandered a source of potential voter growth that he desperately needs to remain competitive in 2012. Many Republicans, sensing an opening, are already piling on, pegging Obama as "soft" on Iran, and unduly critical of America's long-time Middle East ally, Israel.

And what of the GOP's own internal divisions over foreign intervention -- amply demonstrated by Tea party attempts to cut the defense budget, and by the "bring the troops home" rhetoric of leading GOP presidential candidates like Ron Paul and Jon Huntsman?

One might expects these fissures to make it harder for Republican to seize the partisan advantage with military voters, but if past elections are any guide, the GOP, once a nominee is in place, will quickly unify around calls for a tougher US security posture

And where could military voter defection hurt Obama the most? As in 2000, with Gore, it could all come down to Florida, which has one of the highest concentrations of military voters in the nation. Other high-concentration military states are either reliably Blue (California and Hawaii) or decidedly Red (Texas and South Carolina). But Florida is still a major battleground state, and some observers are expecting the 2012 map to shrink to just a handful of states, just as the contest in 2000 did.

In fact, the battle for military vote could well get underway in earnest next week. After New Hampshire's GOP primary today, the next Republican contest is in South Carolina where a quarter of the GOP electorate is comprised of military voters. Those voters swung sharply behind John McCain in 2008, allowing him to offset Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee's enormous advantage among evangelical Christians. McCain won the primary, the GOP's traditional bellwether contest, by just 3%. Had it swung the other way, he may well have lost the nomination.

That's one reason GOP candidate Mitt Romney is now counting so heavily on support from McCain. While McCain helps marginally in New Hampshire, his support among military voters in South Carolina, where Romney has no firewall, could prove far more decisive.

Romney, in fact, is already under fire from influential military conservatives for appearing to support Obama's repeal of DADT. That could well give the surging Rick Santorum an opportunity to put together the coalition of evangelicals and military voters that eluded Huckabee in 2008. And if he wins South Carolina, following a less than impressive victory by Romney in New Hampshire, Santorum would be well-placed to win Florida, too.

Of course, strong Republican gains among the 3-4 million active-duty military voters won't necessarily translate into overwhelming GOP support among veteran voters, whose number are 5 times as large.

Obama could end up losing the former group, in a battleground state like Florida, but he's still in a position to appeal to veterans concerned about job, health care, and their government-subsidized veterans benefits. Some leading conservatives at the Heritage Foundation have recently warned of an Obama counter-offensive on just these issues, suggesting that the President, while down, is clearly not out.

Don't be surprised, then, if the GOP starts rallying conservative veterans groups -- many of whom are already mobilized behind Rick Perry and Paul -- to wage an all-our war for the hearts and minds of military voters in 2012. In an election expected to far closer than the contest in 2008, and with Florida looming as large as it did in 2000, American warriors past and present could prove once again to be the critical swing voters.