Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump and Democratic presidential candidate Hillary...

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump and Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. Credit: Getty Images (2)

The commander-in-chief question creates a battlefield all its own.

Hours before the Manhattan veterans’ forum featuring both candidates on Wednesday, the NBC/SurveyMonkey tracking poll showed Donald Trump leading Hillary Clinton, 55 percent to 36 percent, among voters who are current or former military personnel.

The Republican candidate is always expected to hold an edge in this constituent group. According to Military Times, Mitt Romney led President Barack Obama, 66 to 26 percent, in October 2012 among veterans and active service members.

Clinton and Trump set the frame for Wednesday’s discussion well before it began, becoming part of the run up to Sunday’s 9/11 commemorations.

Clinton carries certain baggage as a former Obama administration official; Trump created a storm when he demeaned Sen. John McCain’s status as a combat veteran and POW.

Also, Trump took a nasty public shot at the Muslim parents of a soldier slain in the Iraq War who had criticized him — earning the candidate a public rebuke from 17 Gold Star families.

Though he was of draft age, Trump didn’t serve in Vietnam, owing to student deferments followed by a medical excuse. In an unusual statement, he also said that having attended the New York Military Academy, a now-defunct private boarding school where he was sent for behavioral issues: “I always felt that I was in the military.”

In 1997, Trump called his avoidance of sexually transmitted diseases “sort of like the Vietnam era. It is my personal Vietnam. I feel like a great and very brave soldier.”

Bill Clinton also avoided service in Vietnam — a longtime talking point for his detractors. More relevantly, Hillary Clinton’s record as secretary of state is subject to dissection — including her controversial handling of classified emails.

A month ago, however, she got a public-relations boost with a letter of support from 50 former Republican national security officials, who stated that GOP nominee Trump “is not qualified to be president and commander-in-chief.”

This week, in a lead up to the Wednesday forum at the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum, the Trump campaign announced support from his own group of former military officials.

He has called for rebuilding the armed forces, without estimating what that will cost. “We’re going to rebuild it with the finest technology in the world,” he promised.

Among Trump’s supporters is retired Lt. Gen. Thomas McInerney, who promoted debunked “birther” theories on Obama. Another is retired Lt. Gen. William G. Boykin, who drew criticism from ex-president George W. Bush for characterizing efforts against terrorism as a confrontation between our “Christian nation” and Satan.

According to The Wall Street Journal, most of those on the list haven’t served since the first Iraq War in the 1990s.

Clinton responded Wednesday with her own list of 95 retired admirals and generals before the forum. Both candidates had retired generals speak for their candidacies at the national conventions.

Command of the Pentagon is complicated -- and even comes up in questions raised about the sprawling Clinton foundation.

The State Department, during Clinton's tenure as secretary, authorized $165 billion in commercial arms sales to 20 nations that also were donors to the foundation, the International Business Times noted last year.

Meanwhile, Trump’s stated admiration for Russian President Vladimir Putin, whose forces have been involved in hostilities in Syria, draws Democratic charges that the Republican severs as a pawn of Putin.

Serious problems at the Department of Veterans Affairs, a flash point during the Obama years, also offers a hot-button issue. Trump raised it early on and even tried blaming McCain.

The host of the Wednesday forum, the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, bills itself as “the most diverse, inclusive community of post-9/11 vets in the country.” It states health care, educational and suicide prevention issues among its priorities.


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