In terms of personal military experience, Democrats say John F. Kerry holds a clear edge over President Bush: a decorated Vietnam War veteran vs. an Air National Guard enlistee whose service, all of it stateside, still raises questions.
But Kerry tried to address a stickier military-political issue at his party's convention here, where he surrounded himself not only with former Navy colleagues but also with prominent retired military brass. The goal, Democratic insiders said, was to battle the long-held public perception that Republicans are tougher and more trustworthy in waging war and dealing with military matters in general.
Retired Army Gen. Wesley K. Clark, who ran for the Democratic presidential nomination himself, came straight to the point in his convention speech Thursday night. "Anyone who tells you that one political party has a monopoly on the best defense of our nation is committing a fraud on the American people," he said. "John Kerry is a leader, a fighter, and he will be a great commander in chief."
More important than Clark's speech, some party leaders said, was a largely overlooked portion of Wednesday night's podium action in which 12 retired generals and admirals endorsed Kerry shortly before retired Army Gen. John M. Shalikashvili, a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, addressed the delegates. Although Republicans dismiss the notion, Democrats say the endorsements marked a dramatic spike in prominent military leaders' embracement of a party that many voters see as dovish or wobbly on national security.
"The number of military people who are willing to stand on that stage, . . . that struck me last night as stunning," Pennsylvania Gov. Edward G. Rendell, a former Democratic Party chairman, told Washington Post reporters and editors Thursday. "I've never seen that."
The endorsers included some with well-known Democratic credentials, such as retired Adm. William J. Crowe, another former chairman of the Joint Chiefs. Also among them, however, was retired Air Force Gen. Merrill A. "Tony" McPeak, who backed Bush in 2000 (and Robert J. Dole in 1996) before embracing Democrats Howard Dean and, ultimately, Kerry, this year.
Bush campaign spokesman Steve Schmidt said it was odd that Kerry's campaign would make a fuss over a dozen endorsements from retired military brass, known as flag officers. Eighteen such officers are on the president's reelection "veterans steering committee," he said, and in August "we will announce the support of over 100 retired flag officers, generals and admirals who endorsed the president."
Clark, in his speech Thursday, said Kerry will "join that pantheon of great wartime Democrats," including Woodrow Wilson, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry S. Truman. But since Vietnam, many Americans have associated Democrats more with war protests and challenges to the Pentagon's spending and practices.
In a June Gallup poll, 51 percent of Americans said they had more trust in Bush to handle the responsibilities of commander in chief, while 43 percent trusted Kerry more.
The convention will not change those sentiments, Bush aides say. "This isn't going to be effective because John Kerry has failed to provide support for things that are essential to our military community," said GOP spokeswoman Christine Iverson.