Kerry lashes out at critics of his war record

Election 2004

August 20, 2004|By Julie Hirschfeld Davis | Julie Hirschfeld Davis,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - Under fire from his political opponents about his war record, John Kerry did what he said he learned to do on the perilous rivers of Vietnam: charge his enemy.

But just as in a war zone more than 30 years ago, Kerry's decision to lash out at his opponents yesterday - this time President Bush and a group of fellow Vietnam veterans who accuse him of lying about his war record - comes with hefty risks.

As Kerry fights back against efforts to discredit his service in Vietnam - where he won three Purple Hearts, a Bronze Star and a Silver Star - he risks calling attention to the questions swirling around his service as a Navy Swift boat skipper in the Mekong Delta. But in blaming the attacks on Bush, as he did yesterday, Kerry is banking on the potential pitfalls they bring for the president - that the debate over Kerry's combat record will highlight the fact that Bush does not have one.

The Democratic presidential candidate, speaking to firefighters in Boston, defended himself against the veterans group, which has aired TV ads accusing him of exaggerating his service record. He accused Bush - by refusing to denounce the group, Swift Boat Veterans for Truth - of using them "to do his dirty work."

Calling the group "a front for the Bush campaign," Kerry dared the president to debate his Vietnam service, saying: "Bring it on." And he scrapped plans to stay off the airwaves until next month in favor of starting advertising in battleground states today to counter the criticism.

The Bush campaign responded by challenging Kerry's claim that the president had launched a backdoor attack on his war record and by denying ties to Swift Boat Veterans for Truth.

"Senator Kerry knows his accusations are false," Steve Schmidt, Bush's campaign spokesman, said in a statement. "Senator Kerry knows President Bush has called his service in Vietnam noble."

Kerry's decision to defend himself was an acknowledgment that, even if there proves to be no truth to the allegations, criticism of his war record has drawn national attention and has the potential to damage his presidential bid. It could chip away at a potent element of Kerry's campaign biography - that he is a war hero with the strength to protect the nation - and enhance one of Bush's best lines of attack - that Kerry can't be trusted.

But there are risks for Bush, too. Questions about Kerry's Vietnam service could call attention to the fact that Bush never served in combat and that there are questions about whether and when he showed up for duty at his stateside Texas Air National Guard billet.

Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, a group of Vietnam veterans who served in Kerry's unit but not on the boat he commanded, began in May to question the candidate's military record and criticize the strong anti-war statements Kerry made when he returned from Vietnam. The group began airing its ad this month.

The anti-Kerry veterans had raised $158,750 as of June 30, their last filing with the Internal Revenue Service, with more than half coming from Bob J. Perry, a Houston homebuilder and prolific Republican donor who has contributed to Bush. Recent reports indicate the group has tripled that amount in recent weeks., a liberal group, shot back at the anti-Kerry ad with one accusing Bush of using his father to get him into the National Guard, then not reporting for duty for several months.

Kerry denounced that spot this week after Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican who is a close friend and fellow decorated Vietnam veteran, called on him to do so. But Bush has not responded to McCain's exhortations to repudiate the anti-Kerry ad.

Instead, the president has called on all independent political groups exempt from campaign finance fund raising and spending limits to stop advertising.

The Vietnam ad wars highlight the ability of such outside groups - which often have connections to candidates or parties - to influence the presidential race by spending large sums of money to trumpet, or trample on, a candidate's message.

By law, they are barred from coordinating with candidates or campaigns, but many of them are funded by the same big donors who support the parties and politicians, and staffed by operatives with close ties to Republicans or Democrats.

The groups have drawn criticism from campaign finance watchdogs, who charge that they are violating new laws against political committees raising and spending large, unregulated campaign contributions. Because the groups do not expressly advocate the election or defeat of a candidate, they are exempt from campaign finance laws, but critics say any group aiming to sway a federal election should have to follow the same rules.

Some Democratic strategists privately questioned Kerry's decision to go on the offensive about the Swift Boat Veterans' accusations, wondering whether the Democrat's strong response might only call attention to the veterans' charges and raise even more questions about Kerry's trustworthiness.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.