John F. Kerry lashed back at his Republican critics early Friday morning, denouncing the GOP convention for its "anger and distortions" and belittling Vice President Cheney for avoiding the military draft during the Vietnam War era.
Just 40 minutes after President Bush completed his acceptance speech in New York, Kerry -- in his sharpest and most personal remarks yet -- called Bush "unfit" to lead, saying he misled the country on the Iraq war and citing his failed record on jobs, health care and energy costs.
"I'm not going to have my commitment to defend this country questioned by those who refused to serve when they could have and by those who have misled the nation into Iraq," Kerry thundered at the midnight rally, in remarks that campaign aides say signals the debut of a more confrontational campaign style.
More than 15,000 people attended the rally in front of a historic city building here. The event was quickly scheduled to respond to the four days of harsh attacks from the GOP convention this week, questioning Kerry's fitness to be president. The decision to come out swinging followed meetings with an expanded team of advisers that includes two Clinton White House veterans who will help direct Kerry's message.
The campaign chose to fight back in this battleground state in a city that Al Gore won by 324 votes in 2000, and where the jobless rate was pushing 9 percent in July.
Saying that Cheney has described him as "unfit for office," Kerry, whose Vietnam War service has been questioned by a group of Swift boat veterans whom he has accused of working with the Bush campaign, broke with his usual practice of not questioning the military credentials of his opponents.
"I'm going to leave it up to the voters whether five deferments makes someone more qualified than two tours of duty," Kerry said. Cheney received a series of deferments from 1962 to 1966 for college and graduate school and then for having a child.
"Let me tell you what I think makes someone unfit for duty," Kerry said. "Misleading our nation into war in Iraq makes you unfit to lead this nation. Doing nothing while this nation loses millions of jobs makes you unfit to lead this nation. Letting 45 million Americans go without health care makes you unfit to lead this nation. Letting the Saudi royal family control our energy costs makes you unfit to lead this nation. Handing out billions [in] government contracts without a bid to Halliburton while you're still on their payroll makes you unfit."
Cheney, who was not personally involved in the contracts, gave up the chief executive's post at Halliburton when he ran for vice president but has continued to receive deferred compensation.
The tougher rhetoric comes as the Kerry camp is beginning an $8 million advertising blitz that will accuse the president of a string of broken promises. Six of the ads will air in swing-state markets right after the president visits them on a post-convention tour: Cleveland; Milwaukee; Scranton and Erie, Pa.; Cedar Rapids, Iowa; and Parkersburg, W.Va.
"We're going to be very aggressive throughout the fall in painting the real picture of George Bush," communications director Stephanie Cutter said of the new spots. "We are going to remind voters of what George Bush said in 2000 and what he did. It is a much more aggressive stance."
An ad that will run in Pennsylvania, for example, will say that Bush promised health care for seniors four years ago but that now millions remain without health insurance and drug prices are soaring.
The Kerry camp announced two milder ads Thursday to turn the campaign debate back to domestic issues after the GOP's most high-profile speakers assailed the senator from Massachusetts as weak on national security.
"It's time for a president who understands that a stronger America begins at home," Kerry says in one ad, which will run on cable networks. "It's time to stop rewarding companies for shipping jobs overseas. To get health care costs under control. And to end America's dependence on Middle East oil."
The ad concludes with a classic Democratic message: "The fundamental choice in this election is between a president who will fight for the middle class and a president who sides with the special interests in this country."
The second Kerry spot will air in Ohio, where Bush is to campaign Saturday: "It's America's heartland, but it's been hit hard. In the past four years, Ohio has lost 230,000 jobs. President Bush insists the economy is just fine. We know America can do better."
Bush campaign spokesman Steve Schmidt turned the "special interests" charge back at Kerry, saying the senator has helped block medical malpractice reform. "He's picked the side of the trial lawyers over doctors and patients," Schmidt said.
The president's campaign, meanwhile, released three positive ads Thursday night, highlighting domestic initiatives from Bush's convention speech.
One ticks off Bush's agenda: "Lower health care costs. Allow small businesses to band together to get insurance rates big companies get. Tax-free health savings accounts [that] families own. Stop junk lawsuits against doctors and hospitals. . . . Every eligible child with health coverage." In another, the president touts "a fairer, simpler tax code" and promises to "strengthen Social Security."
Kerry has run mainly positive spots for six months in the face of relentless negative advertising by Bush.
Kurtz reported from New York.