The fight over Vietnam and valor consumed the presidential campaign yesterday, as a group of veterans accused John F. Kerry of betraying fellow soldiers and dishonoring the country when he became a leader of the antiwar movement upon his return, and Democrats launched a new counteroffensive.
A new ad by the anti-Kerry group Swift Boat Veterans for Truth condemns the Democratic nominee for making allegations of war crimes and atrocities committed by American soldiers. "It hurt me more than any physical wounds I had," a Vietnam veteran says in the ad about Kerry's highly publicized testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 1971.
With polls showing attacks on Kerry's war record reaching large numbers of voters and resonating with many independents and veterans, the Democratic National Committee defended Kerry with a new ad, featuring retired Air Force Gen. Merrill A. McPeak -- a Bush supporter in 2000. "John Kerry has the strength and common sense we need in a commander in chief," McPeak says in the ad. Kerry will try to shift the focus back to President Bush with an ad that will be unveiled tomorrow, a top aide said.
Yesterday, Kerry did not respond to the new allegations, although aides said his testimony was directed at military leadership, not the soldiers fighting in Vietnam. The Kerry campaign filed a legal challenge against the veterans group, alleging it is illegally colluding with the Bush campaign. Aides denounced the president and his aides for what they called a smear campaign.
Debate over war and protests three decades ago drowned out discussion of issues such as Iraq, terrorism, the economy and health care. It is dominating the strategy sessions of the two campaigns and changing the political calculations of both parties.
Kerry hoped to focus on domestic matters but finds himself plotting a response to a veterans group that did not even exist a few months ago over an issue he thought had died. He has been forced to spend money and valuable time responding. Kerry talked with aides throughout the day about a strategy to put the issue of his Vietnam service and protests to rest.
Bush is trying to distance himself from the attacks and capitalize on them at the same time. A local Bush-Cheney organization in Florida, for example, is listed in a new brochure promoting an upcoming rally of the anti-Kerry Swift boat veterans. Steve Schmidt, a Bush spokesman, said the effort was not approved by Bush headquarters.
Underscoring how personal the dispute has become, Bush's campaign chairman, Marc Racicot, went on CNN and said the Kerry campaign has come "unhinged," and that Kerry himself "looks wild-eyed." Earlier yesterday, White House spokesman Scott McClellan said Kerry is "losing his cool." In 2000, the Bush campaign used similar language to portray rival Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) as potentially too unstable to run the country.
David Wade, a Kerry spokesman, responded in kind: "Maybe if George Bush had seen combat up close his hired-gun mouthpiece wouldn't be so flip." Not to be outdone, Kerry spokeswoman Stephanie Cutter said, "Mr. McClellan needs to understand that John Kerry is not the type of leader who will sit and read 'My Pet Goat' to a group of second-graders while America is under attack." On Sept. 11, 2001, Bush remained in a Florida classroom for several minutes after learning that planes had flown into the World Trade Center.
Cutter said Bush's military service may become a bigger issue in the days ahead. "If George Bush continues to smear [Kerry's] service, voters have a right to look at Bush's failure to serve out his time in the National Guard," she said. Bush maintains that he fulfilled his duties.
Kerry, who has been criticized by Democrats for mishandling the controversy, has been damaged by the veterans' accusations, according to two polls. Three weeks after the anti-Kerry veterans questioned whether the Democratic nominee lied to win decorations in Vietnam, a CBS poll showed Kerry dropping 18 points behind Bush among veterans. The candidates were even only weeks ago.
Although the Swift boat group says it spent just $500,000 airing its first ad in three states, a new poll by the University of Pennsylvania's National Annenberg Election Survey found that more than half of voters questioned had seen or heard of the ad, often on cable news shows. Most distressing to the Kerry camp, the survey found that 44 percent of independent voters considered the ad very or somewhat believable.
The new ad could prove even more damaging, according to several Democratic strategists. The ad, which will air next week in Pennsylvania, New Mexico and Nevada, takes selected portions of Kerry's antiwar testimony from 1971 to portray the nominee as brutally critical of Americans in Vietnam. "They had personally raped, cut off ears, cut off heads," Kerry is shown testifying in the opening clip. A few seconds later, Ken Cordier, a veteran, says: "He betrayed us in the past -- how can we be loyal to him now?"
"This is another ad from a front group funded by Bush allies that is trying to smear John Kerry," Kerry spokesman Jonathan Beeton said in a statement. "The newest ad takes Kerry's testimony out of context, editing what he said to distort the facts. He testified as a 27-year-old Vietnam veteran. He opposed a war that, at that point, cost over 44,000 lives of the 58,245 names that are on the Vietnam Memorial wall."
In defense of Kerry, aides distributed a copy of the candidate's comments on NBC's "Meet the Press" earlier this year, when he conceded the language was sometimes excessive. "I think some soldiers were angry at me for that, and I understand that and I regret that, because I love them," Kerry said on the April 18 program. "But the words were honest, but on the other hand they were a little bit over the top."
An official with the Swift boat group says it raised more than $300,000 via the Internet on Thursday, because of the publicity the attacks are garnering.
The Kerry campaign filed a complaint with the Federal Election Commission yesterday, hoping to force the group to pull its ad attacking the candidate's service in Vietnam. But election experts -- and even some Kerry aides -- concede it is highly unlikely the commission will intervene. Several aides are pushing Kerry to directly challenge Bush's stateside service in the National Guard and force the president to prove he fulfilled his service requirements in 1972.