Sen. John F. Kerry today stepped up his counterattack in the dispute about his service in Vietnam, accusing the "Bush campaign and its allies" of using "the tactics of fear and smear" as a way of avoiding the "real issues."

Without specifically mentioning the controversy raised by an anti-Kerry veterans group, Swiftboat Veterans for Truth, Kerry said the presidential campaign was now "about reclaiming the character of our country and the integrity of our politics."

Speaking at Cooper Union College in New York, he said, "I'm here today to call for a truthful and robust debate about our values as Americans and the fundamental choices that we will make at a critical time in America's, and indeed, the world's history. That is what this election should be about.

"But from the other side," he said, "we've seen a calculated effort to evade that debate. The campaign and its allies have turned to the tactics of fear and smear because they can't talk about jobs, healthcare, energy independence and rebuilding our alliances. They can't or they refuse to talk about the real issues that matter to the American people."

The administration, he said, has "obviously decided that some people will believe anything, no matter how far fetched, if they just repeat it often enough. That's how they are running their administration. That's how they are running their campaign. And that's how they are going to run their convention."

Kerry's speech came a day after his campaign unveiled a new ad accusing President Bush of using the same smear tactics that he used against Sen. John McCain in 2000.

His comments came at the beginning of a speech focused on economic issues in which Kerry reiterated his support for reducing the cost of health care, finding programs to help families afford homes and college educations and increasing the federal minimum wage. Kerry noted in his address that he was a short distance from Madison Square Garden, where Republicans will meet next week to nominate President Bush as their presidential candidate.

"The world will listen to what the Republicans say when they come here," Kerry said. "But words, slogans and personal attacks cannot disguise what they have done and left undone. They are going to say that we've turned the corner; that the job is getting done. They are even going to claim, as they already have, that this is the best economy of our lifetimes."

Steve Schmidt, spokesman for the Bush-Cheney campaign, told the Associated Press that the Kerry record displays support for tax hikes, not tax cuts. "John Kerry says the blueprint for his economic agenda was his vote for the biggest tax increase in American history he supported in 1993," Schmidt said.

The 1993 vote was in favor of President Clinton's plan to cut the deficit by $469 billion over five years, including some tax increases. It passed by one vote without any GOP support.