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5 prominent veterans whose presidential bids tanked

Considering the fact that the president is the commander-in-chief of the U.S. Armed Forces, it would make sense for presidential candidates to have some military experience. But veterans have often struggled in their bids for the White House.


While these five men all had plenty of experience in government — and at least a little experience in uniform — they all fell short in a bid for the leader of the free world:

1. Michael Dukakis

Screengrab: YouTube/POLITICO

A former Army private, Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis held a commanding lead early in the 1988 presidential race in which he faced then-Vice President and fellow veteran George H. W. Bush. But Dukakis spent the early weeks of the general election finishing up governor work and vacationing while Bush closed the 17 percent polls gap and took the lead.

As the race ramped up in the summer of '88, Dukakis worked to take back the initiative. Under criticism that he would be soft on defense, he conducted a photo op in an M1 Abrams tank, but he looked so ridiculous in the tank that the journalists covering it burst out laughing in the stands. The resulting photos sank his campaign, and Bush won in a landslide.

2. George H.W. Bush

President George H.W. Bush tours American positions in Saudi Arabia on Thanksgiving, 1990. (Photo: US National Archives/David Valdez)

And how about President George H. W. Bush? He struggled four years later and lost his re-election bid to Bill Clinton. Bush, a World War II Navy vet, announced his candidacy at a high point in his popularity, right after the completion of Operation Desert Storm.

But soon after his announcement, public perception shifted and people began to question whether America pulled out of Iraq too soon as well as whether Saddam Hussein should have been allowed to remain in power. Meanwhile, economic stagnation and new taxes soured Bush's appeal on domestic issues. Clinton won the presidency and Bush left office.

3. Jimmy Carter

Former President Jimmy Carter receives a model of the USS Jimmy Carter, a nuclear submarine named after him. (Photo: US Marine Corps Staff Sgt. Keith A. Stevenson)

Don't feel too bad for Bush. He only got his vice presidential spot in the first place by kicking another Navy veteran turned president, Jimmy Carter, out of the top job. Carter faced trouble early in the election due to dwindling popularity, the ongoing Iran Hostage Crisis, and economic troubles. Carter had to beat down a primary challenge from Senator Ted Kennedy before the general election.

In the general election, Bush and presidential candidate Ronald Reagan toured the country, ridiculing Carter over and over. Carter tried to counter by calling Reagan a right-wing radical, but the Republican ticket won a massive victory and even picked up enough Senate seats to regain control of the legislature for the first time in 28 years.

4. John McCain

Senator John McCain and Governor Sarah Palin campaign in the 2008 election. (Photo: Matthew Reichbach via Flickr)

John McCain grew up as Navy royalty, with both a father and a grandfather who were four-star admirals. He became a popular senator after his own Navy career that included more than 5 years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam.

McCain actually lost two presidential bids. In the 2000 primary, he won New Hampshire but lost South Carolina and most Super Tuesday states before withdrawing from the race and endorsing George W. Bush, then the governor of Texas.

In 2008, he attempted to follow Bush to the presidency. He won the primary but the 2008 recession turned opinions against the Republicans and Sen. Barack Obama launched a big-data-based campaign that got him ahead of McCain in the polls. McCain earned a respectable 46 percent of the popular vote but lost most battleground states and suffered a 173-365 electoral defeat.

5. Adlai Stevenson

Adlai Stevenson and David Dubinsky shake hands on stage at an AFL convention, September 1952. (Photo: Kheel Center via Flickr)

Gov. Adlai Stevenson was a former sailor and a former special assistant to the secretary of the Navy. He was defeated three times in bids for the presidency, falling each time to a more popular veteran.

In 1952 Stevenson ran against Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower only eight years after Eisenhower led the Allies to victory in a world war. He suffered a crushing defeat, then came back in 1956 to be beat even worse.

In 1960 he ran against John F. Kennedy for the Democratic nomination but refused to campaign until the night before the convention. He came in fourth.

Kennedy, also a former sailor, received the nomination and won the presidency. Kennedy eventually named Stevenson as the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations.

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