Former congressman Vin Weber (R-Minn.) said the Swift boat controversy has had a lasting effect on the presidential campaign and will continue to dog Democratic candidate John F. Kerry.

"I think it's big," Weber said about the ads by a group of Vietnam veterans who question Kerry's wartime service. "We may look back and say this is the most significant phenomenon of this election."

Weber, who serves as chairman for the Bush-Cheney campaign in Plains states, would not offer his opinion on whether the claims made in the ads being aired by Swift Boat Veterans for Truth were legitimate, but he did say the issue resonates with voters who are primarily concerned with issues of national security.

Weber said the ads questioning whether Kerry deserved medals awarded for valor are effective because they raise salient issues about the Democratic presidential candidate's ability to be commander in chief after touting his record as a Vietnam war hero last month in Boston.

"This is central," Weber emphasized during a breakfast meeting with Washington Post reporters and editors. "This who John Kerry is and his fundamental fitness to lead the country. That's why it is having such a devastating impact and that's why it's such a radioactive topic."

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"You can't ignore the Swift boat controversy and what seems to have been a major error in the Kerry campaign's strategy," Weber told Washington Post reporters and editors Wednesday morning at the Essex House hotel in New York. Democrats sent only one message in Boston, according to Weber: "John Kerry is a Vietnam war hero."

Weber said the success of the Swift boat campaign is interesting because the independent groups supporting Kerry are better organized and better funded than most Republican groups, including the Swift boat veterans. But the issue of Kerry's fitness, he said, is likely to linger until November because of the Kerry campaign's inability to effectively defend his record from the charges.

"Kerry has so mishandled it that its never going to go away now," Weber said.