Reviving a political tactic that helped turn around his campaign during the Democratic primaries, John F. Kerry is increasingly surrounding himself with crewmates from Vietnam and veterans of other wars to highlight his patriotism and provide a contrast with President Bush on military service.
In an election colored by Iraq, terrorism and other national security issues, the senator from Massachusetts is trying to show that he and his party are more committed to national defense, veterans and patriotism than Bush and the GOP. Since Vietnam, the war that brought Kerry to prominence, first as a war hero and later as a war critic, Democrats have suffered politically from perceptions of weakness on national security issues, polls have shown.
With voters consistently telling pollsters Iraq and terrorism are among their top concerns this year, Kerry is calculating that only by shedding this image can Democrats win the White House in wartime, according to advisers. To do this, Kerry has adopted tough rhetoric when talking about Iraq, al Qaeda and homeland defense and has wrapped himself in red-white-and-blue symbolism. He also touts his military service: Kerry was awarded the Silver Star, the Bronze Star and three Purple Hearts in Vietnam; Bush served stateside in the National Guard. Vice President Cheney, who was also eligible during the Vietnam era, did not serve, after receiving several draft deferments.
Kerry has narrowed Bush's advantage on defense issues, polls show, but voters still express reservations about the Democrat's record. Kerry has voted both for and against weapons systems, military engagements and changes to the military. Kerry supports increasing the size of the military, at least temporarily, and spending more money on homeland defense. The campaign said he will provide greater details on his plans next week.
"His rhetoric does not match reality," countered Steve Schmidt of the Bush campaign.
Strategists say that patriotism can be a powerful political issue, but also a dangerous one, noting how Bush was criticized a year ago for landing on the deck of a carrier in a flight suit to stand under a "Mission Accomplished" banner and declare the end of combat in Iraq. For Kerry, the challenge is to hit these themes without appearing to exploit them, aides say.
Kerry's interest in symbolism was evident late Tuesday night in Seattle, when he sat on the runway for nearly 10 minutes helping decide where to place an American flag on the exterior of his new campaign plane. Starting a few weeks ago, Kerry's campaign arranged for veterans to meet the candidate upon landing at virtually every stop, an image often replayed on local television reports.
Kerry frequently campaigns with former senator Max Cleland (D-Ga.), a Vietnam veteran and triple amputee who Democrats point to as a prime example of what they call Bush's politicization of war and patriotism. In the 2002 midterm elections, Republicans questioned Cleland's commitment to national security because he opposed Bush's version of a Department of Homeland Security. Cleland was defeated.
This week, Kerry kicked off an 11-day campaign to discuss security issues, and his campaign has asked veterans of World War II, Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan to surround him. Kerry is traveling with crewmates Del Sandusky and Drew Whitlow and veteran Jim Rassman, who credits Kerry with saving his life in Vietnam.
At a campaign event with veterans here Friday at a railroad museum, Rassman fought back tears several times as he introduced the senator as his hero. Rassman was introduced by John Nusbaum, a Vietnam veteran who said he voted for Bush and the president's father twice but declared with a quiver in his voice, "I can no longer support the current leadership."
Kerry proceeded to ask veterans to stand for recognition and applause, starting with those from Iraq and Afghanistan, then World War II, and finally Vietnam. Kerry accused Bush of making America "less safe" and putting U.S. troops in "greater danger" because of his decisions about Iraq. Moments before, his staff sent out a memo stamped "George Bush: breaking our commitment to those who served."
Kerry picked up this theme toward the end of Friday's speech, accusing Bush of planning to gut veterans programs. Pointing to a report that the administration plans wide-ranging cuts in domestic programs after the election, Kerry said that "we are starving" veterans programs. He added that "we have a values problem" in Washington.
Kerry repeated his charge that Bush under-funded veterans programs by $1.8 billion. Bush has in fact increased the department's budget, though not nearly as much as Kerry and veterans groups have sought. Over the course of his administration, Bush, along with Congress, has increased the agency's discretionary spending -- programs not mandated by law -- by about $7 billion, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs.
"My friend, I am not going to listen to Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld and other people talk about patriotism in America when the first definition of patriotism is keeping faith with the people who wore the uniform in this country," Kerry said. After flying back to Washington, Kerry ended his day with a meeting with the Congressional Black Caucus -- to "salute" African American veterans.
Kerry, who showed up an hour late after the program concluded, told the veterans in a short speech, "One thing you never forget, no matter where you come from . . . [are] the people who serve by your side and the privilege of service."
Political researcher Brian Faler in Washington contributed to this report.