ST. LOUIS, Aug. 5 -- Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) rushed to John F. Kerry's defense Thursday, condemning a new ad claiming the Democratic presidential nominee lied about his military record and betrayed his Vietnam comrades by protesting the war.
McCain, who was a prisoner of war in Vietnam, called on President Bush to condemn the ad, which was financed in part by a major Republican Party donor in Texas.
As McCain defended the Democratic nominee, Kerry for the first time criticized Bush for indecisiveness in the moments after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, underscoring how personal issues of war, terrorism and military service have become.
At a morning appearance before minority journalists in Washington, Kerry faulted Bush for spending seven minutes reading to Florida schoolchildren after learning the World Trade Center had been attacked. "Had I been reading to children and had my top aide whispered in my ear that America is under attack, I would have told those kids very nicely and politely that the president of the United States has something that he needs to attend to," Kerry said.
Rudolph W. Giuliani, the Republican mayor of New York on Sept. 11, was tapped by the Bush campaign to fire back. "John Kerry must be frustrated in his campaign if he is armchair-quarterbacking based on cues from Michael Moore," he said. Moore's film "Fahrenheit 9/11" ridicules Bush for continuing to read to youngsters once he learned of the attacks. Giuliani said Kerry is the "indecisive" candidate because he has "demonstrated an inconsistent position on the war on terror."
Still, it was McCain who again came to Kerry's defense at an opportune time for Democrats. McCain, who challenged Bush for the GOP nomination in 2000, has become a central, if sometimes reluctant, figure in the campaign -- for both sides. Kerry courted him as a potential running mate after McCain defended Kerry's war record on national television. At rallies, Kerry frequently cites his relationship with McCain as evidence of bipartisanship.
Bush has turned to McCain for political cover, too. The day Kerry announced Sen. John Edwards (N.C.) as his running mate, Bush released a TV ad in which McCain praised the president's wartime leadership. McCain, who is to deliver a keynote speech at the Republican National Convention this month, has made it clear he is backing Bush and plans to campaign for the Republican ticket with one big condition: He will not criticize Kerry.
On Thursday, McCain addressed the tussle over a new 60-second ad produced by a group calling itself Swift Boat Veterans for Truth. The group includes dozens of Vietnam veterans and claims Kerry exaggerated his wounds to win war medals and betrayed soldiers with his antiwar protesting after he returned from Vietnam. The group is organized as a Section 527 organization, which allows it to raise and spend unlimited "soft" money that federal candidates are prohibited from using.
A GOP firm based in Alexandria -- Stevens Reed Curcio & Potholm -- produced the spot, which began airing Thursday in Ohio, West Virginia and Wisconsin. The ad is part of a broader effort to discredit Kerry's war service that includes a new book, "Unfit for Command: Swift Boat Veterans Speak Out Against John Kerry." While the book will not be released until later this month, it was ranked first in sales Thursday on Amazon.com.
The general counsel for the Kerry campaign and the Democratic National Committee sent television stations a letter asking them not to run the ad because it is "an inflammatory, outrageous lie" by people purporting to have served with Kerry.
In an interview with the Associated Press, McCain called the ad "dishonest and dishonorable." Asked if the White House was behind it, McCain said: "I hope not, but I don't know. But I think the Bush campaign should specifically condemn the ad."
Soon after, White House spokesman Scott McClellan declined to do so and instead criticized the financing of the ad, saying the president "deplores all the unregulated soft-money activity." McClellan said the Bush campaign had nothing to do with the ad or the group behind it. "We have not and we will not question Kerry's service in Vietnam," he said. McClellan used the opportunity to call on Kerry to join Bush in demanding that all soft-money groups quit running ads. The overwhelming majority of such ads have targeted Bush, often harshly. Kerry campaign spokeswoman Stephanie Cutter said Kerry will not ask the groups to stop their advertising.
The back-and-forth over war and service came as Kerry reunited with Edwards to begin a campaign by train, as Missourian Harry S. Truman did six decades ago. Aboard the train pulling the same car, No. 403, used by Truman, Lyndon B. Johnson, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, the Democratic ticket will weave through Missouri, Colorado and New Mexico en route to Arizona. The candidates will stop in several Republican strongholds as part of what they are calling the "believe in America tour."
In Kansas City, Mo., on Friday, Kerry is to propose new energy policies, including a $20 billion trust fund to develop new fuels and technologies. With oil and gasoline prices rising, Kerry will also call for new incentives and mandates to make automobiles more efficient and engineer them to run on alternative fuels such as ethanol and biodiesel.
At St. Louis's Union Station, Edwards played the optimist, leading the crowd in repeated chants of "Hope is on the way," while Kerry played a more muscular role, leading repeated chants of "Help is on the way." A policy book put out by the campaign captures the new dynamic: Edwards is shown with a sunny smile, and Kerry with his arm bent as if he is flexing his bicep.
"I can fight a more effective, smarter and better war on terror that actually makes America safer in the future," Kerry said to thousands of people gathered for the early-afternoon rally.
Kerry ignored the biggest political issue of the week here: the fight to outlaw same-sex marriage. Around 1.5 million Missourians turned out Tuesday to vote heavily in favor of a state ban on same-sex unions, a rousing endorsement that some contend could affect voting in this battleground state on Nov. 2.
At the St Louis rally, however, many voters were skeptical about claims that the issue may influence the presidential race. Instead, people talked of the economy and how the loss of manufacturing jobs has left the state scarred and struggling, with its economic recovery lagging far behind some states.
"I don't think gay marriage is going to be a big issue in Missouri -- people realize there are far more important issues at stake that affect everybody's lives, not just a few," said Joan McCarthy, 45, a database administrator here.
Rochelle Webber-Williams, 45, a Gulf War veteran, recited the mantra that jobs and the economy matter in Missouri above all else. "Personally I really don't care what people do behind closed doors. What I do care about is the economy and the war," she said. "People want a change from Bush more than anything else -- that's why I'm voting for Kerry."
Political researcher Brian Faler in Washington contributed to this report.